Sri Lanka: The Untold Story, Chapter 55

The murder of Athulathmudali

by K T Rajasingham, ‘Asian Times,’ Singapore, 2002

In the 1989 presidential elections, Lalith Athulathmudali, who was then the Minister for National Security, Prime Minister Ranasinghe Premadasa and the Minister for Mahaveli Development, Gamini Dissanayake, were widely believed to be the contenders for nomination from the ruling United National Party (UNP). But Premadasa was nominated, and he won the presidential elections to become the country’s second executive president, succeeding J R Jayewardene.

Subsequently, Athulathmudali and Dissanayake were believed to be the contenders for the post of Prime Minister. But Premadasa overlooked both of them and nominated D B Wijetunge. Furthermore, Premadasa took away from Athulathmudali the important portfolio of National Security and nominated Ranjan Wijeratne as Minister of State for State Securities, as he has helped him to secure the UNP nomination for the presidential elections.

Athulathmudali and Dissanayake, who had been powerful ministers and very influential personalities in the J R Jayewardene government, were progressively deprived of their powers and influence by Premadasa. Athulathmudali was appointed Minister of Agriculture and Cooperatives and later Minister of Education and Higher Education. Dissanayake, who was appointed initially as the Minister of Plantation Industry, was stripped of this portfolio in the March 1990 reshuffle.

Earlier, during the parliamentary general elections held in February 1989, Premadasa supported his lieutenant, Srisena Coorey, against Athulathmudali for the position of Chief Organizer of the UNP for the Colombo District. In the elections, Athulathmudali won the highest number of preferential votes cast all-island – 235,447 – and also came first in the number of preferential UNP votes cast in the Colombo District. Whereas Srisena Coorey polled 92,236 votes and came a poor second. After the parliamentary elections, Athulathmudali once again became the Chief Organizer of the UNP of the Colombo district.

On March 2, 1991, the Deputy Minister of Defense and the General Secretary of the UNP, Ranjan Wijeratne, was killed, and Premadasa appointed Srisena Coorey as the General Secretary of the UNP, without consulting the working committee or other senior leaders of the party. Also, premier D B Wijetunge was appointed as Deputy Defense Minister. However, primary party elections were held a few weeks later and Athulathmudali’s position as district leader was undermined by Srisena Coorey, who took over primary election matters for the Colombo Municipal Council.

Earlier in this series, in chapters dealing with the assassination of Lieutenant-General Denzil Kobbekaduwa, the secret transfer of weapons to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) by President Premadasa was outlined. Also, the evidence given by the army deserter turned witness Vathiyage Visva Kumara has been extensively discussed in the chapters dealing with the Commission of Inquiry into the assassination of Kobbekaduwa and nine others at Araly Pont, Kayts on August 8, 1992.

Superior officers of the army, Special Task Force (STF) and persons who held executive and administrative positions in Premadasa’s government, namely General Sepala Attyagalle, Secretary of Defense, K H J Wijedasa, Secretary to the President, Brigadier Bohoran of the army, Lionel Karunasena and Sahabandhu and Commandant and the Deputy Commandant of the STF and a host of other officers have all admitted and confirmed both in their testimony of the witness Vathiyage, to the fact that arms and ammunition, including 6mm RPG guns, motars, self loading rifles, 400 T81 automatic rifles, T56 automatic rifles, pistols, hand grenades, ammunition and equipment for all communications sets etc and other components of modern warfare were given to the LTTE.

Tear gas rifles, tear gas, signal flames, pistols, fingercups, etc and hand-held integrated circuits, SG 700 car antennas, video cassettes, boot mounts, tilting boot mounts pipe mounts etc were also passed on. Furthermore, the LTTE ordered the import of numerous items, such as well drilling machines, radios, cables, mobile sets, head phones, microphones, batteries, amplifiers and water purification tablets which were imported and addressed to Defense Secretary General Sepala Attyagala, c/o A S Balasingham of the LTTE. The duty on these imported items was paid by the Defense Ministry.

Money was also secretly given to the LTTE in 1989 and in 1990. Weapons were given from Government stocks, from armories, specially imported for the purpose of usage of the air force, army, navy and STF on the orders of the President, ostensibly to crush the Tamil National Army, thought to be fostered by the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF), and through that the IPKF was able to read the intentions and the signals of the Sri Lankan Government and would leave the country.

As an aftermath of the transfer weapons by the Government to the LTTE in 1989-1990, a Presidential Commission in its Sessional Paper No. VIII – 1997 reports as follows:

(a) The Indian Peace Keeping Forces leave Jaffna on 20th March 1990 (The date they left the shores of Sri Lanka was 24 March 1990) and returned to India a few days later, after licking their wounds. They had been asked to leave by President Premadasa in mid 1989. Towards the end of May 1990, the outstation reports showed the LTTE were taking control of more and more territory.

(b) Premadasa was insistent that the IPKF leave Sri Lanka. The LTTE while crushing the TNA emerges as a resurgent domineering force in the North and East. They demand the withdrawal of army camps in the North and East and the withdrawal of the police in those areas. The IPKF have left. The LTTE takes up police duties. They did inquiries into complaints. They manned road blocks and policed the roads. Government forces were humiliated on public roads. The police are mostly confined to their station premises attending to minor duties, such as attending to cases of sudden deaths, accidents and insurance. Police officers played games and guarded themselves. To leave the police station, the police had to telephone and get permission from the LTTE. Armed LTTE cadres used to come into police stations to talk to the OIC. The LTTE used to walk about the roads armed with sophisticated weapons. The LTTE conducted its own training programs. The Army camp at Akkaraipattu was withdrawn. At instruction classes, police were told there were peace talks between the LTTE and the Government for the development of the country and the police were told not to clash with them.

(c) On 11 June 1990, the LTTE surrounded the police stations in the Batticaloa and Amparai police divisions and asked the police to surrender and they would transport them to Amparai. The Government asked the police to act with restraint. Some police officers were prepared to hold their and fight and requested Artillery and Air support. Later that day IGP (Inspector General Police) informed that such a support was not available. President Premadasa did not know what to do. He has been kept informed right along what was happening since May. He had believed the LTTE and now he felt let down – that was the evidence of Mr. K.H.J. Wijedasa, Secretary to the President. The police were asked to surrender. They did so believing that they would be transported to Sinhala areas. In some stations LTTE opened fire and police officers were killed.

The LTTE entered all stations breaking open the gates and fences, broke open the armories and took all weapons and ammunitions. In the Amparai district the police officers were herded into vehicles and then taken to Kanchikudicahiaru jungles and shot dead.

One person who survived the ordeal and who escaped has testified before the Commission. P S A L Najubudeen was acting OIC of Akkaraipattu police at that time. He gave a detailed account of what happened on June 11, 1990 and how they were betrayed and taken into thick forest and shot and his escape etc. The Commission believed him. His evidence was not been contested in any manner. He later led the authorities to the spot where the others were shot death. The real evidence there confirmed his death.

Meanwhile, after the displeasure between Premadasa and Lalith Athulathmudali surfaced, President Premadasa at public meetings spoke of “learned fools” to wit and spoke of “learned men who robbed cleverly but also went to jail”.

There were obvious references to allegations of wrong doing made against Lalith Athulathmudali in regard to ships and shipping, whilst being in charge and leveled during the general election campaign, and of his being remanded in custody in 1976 in respect of a conspiracy to cause grievous hurt to Ediriweera by means of corrosive substance to wit: acid and abatement of that offence which was committed. Lalith Athulathmudali spent time in the remand jail during the police investigations.

Meantime, Luxman Perera, Member of the Municipal Council (MMC) wrote a play using the title “Me – caudate – Monawada Karanne?” (The Sinhala translated into English: Who is he – What is he doing?) This title has been taken from the slogan of the same words used in the 1988, in support of President Premadasa’s presidential election campaign.

Luxman Perera’s drama was meant to be a satire on the Premadasa’s administration. Luxman Perera joined hands with journalist and media man Richard Soyza. Luxman Perera’s play was submitted to the Public Performances Board, which approved it. It was said that, Lalith Athulathmudali was aware of the content of the drama, as Luxman Perera was one of his close political associates.

Luxman Perera lived in a bungalow belonged to the Railway Department, in the Station Road, Dehiwala, with his family. Lalith Athulathmudali agreed to be the chief guest of the drama, on the opening night. Suddenly, a few days before the opening night, a van without a number plate arrived at Luxman Perera’s home at night and took him away. He disappeared. He was presumed dead. It was rumored that Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP) Ronnie Gunasinghe was responsible for the abduction.

A few days later, on February 18, 1990, Richard Soyza was forcibly carried away from his bed, by a group of men, who arrived at about 3 am, despite his mother’s protest and intervention. Subsequently, Richard Soyza’s body was found washed ashore at Korolawella beach Moratuwa.

These were the beginning symptoms of Lalith Athulathmudali’s troubles in the UNP. When the episode regarding the impeachment motion was staged, Lalith Athulathmudali was sacked from the UNP. The theme of depicting President Premadasa as being unsound mind in the impeachment motion was said to have originated from the play written by Luxman Perera. Premadasa referred to Lalith Athulathmudali as a “Ugath Modaya” – Learned Fool – because he was deeply insulted by the wording of “unsound mind” in the impeachment motion.

The impeachment motion against the President was given to the Speaker on August 28, 1991. It was reported that, at that point of time, Lalith Athulathmudali had not signed those papers, whatever was given to the Speaker. The Speaker communicated with the President about the impeachment motion. Premadasa then sought a vote of confidence from the Cabinet on that day. Lalith Athulathmudali and Premachandra were present and they voted with the other Cabinet colleagues, expressing confidence in the President.

On August 29, 1991, Athulathmudali and Premachandra both resigned their ministerial portfolios. On August 30, Athulathmudali, Premachandra and Gamini Dissanayake were sacked from the UNP by the Working Committee of the Party. The President prorogued parliament on the same day and the two ministers and others filed action in the District Court challenging their expulsion from the party. But they failed at the District Court and they filed the same petition in the Supreme Court, and there too their action failed and the dismissal from the party was upheld.

Subsequently, Athulathmudali and Dissanayake and others, who were dismissed from the party, began to organize public meetings all over the country, to explain what had happened and to inform the public of the content of the impeachment motion against the President. Also in the public meetings, speaker after speaker alleged the mental infirmity of the President and the conversion of the democratic constitution into a “One Man Show”.

These developments marked a watershed in the political lives of Athulathmudali, Dissanayake and Premachandra. All security given to these ministers was withdrawn by the government. On August 30, 1991, the government withdrew the 12 security officers of Athulathmudali, but later he was given two back.

Athulathmudali, Dissanayake and others organized themselves into a political opposition to the Government of President Premadasa. They set about broadcasting the content of their resolutions against the President in numerous ways.

They held their first public meeting against the Government on August 10, 1991 at Nugegoda. Prior to this, Athulathmudali received information that the meeting was to be attacked and he complained to Henry Perera, SSP in charge of the Nugegoda division, on the night of August 9. It was later learnt that the written complaint made by Lalith Athulathmudali spoke of a conspiracy to disrupt the meeting on the 10th and kill him. It was further revealed that the complaint carried the names of the conspirators and vehicle numbers.

Henry Perera took all necessary security precautions for the public meeting, which commenced at 3.30 pm on August 10. The crowd was estimated at about 200,000. Lalith Athulathmudali addressed the meeting at 7 pm.

Besides the big meeting at Nugegoda, several pocket meetings were organized in private premises, which were held island-wide and at which Athulathmudali would speak for nearly 10 to 15 minutes and then stage a question and answer session for an hour or so.

Meanwhile, on November 28, 1991, an application to register the Democratic United National Front (DUNF) was made. Athulathmudali joined the party on December 3, 1991. The party was registered as a political party on January 20, 1992. In 1992, Athulathmudali was elected leader of the party.

On November 2, 1991, a public meeting was held at the playground at Pannala. Athulathmudali, Dissanayake, Premachandra and others addressed the meeting. It commenced at 5 pm and about 100,000 to 150,000 people were seen gathered. At about 6.30 pm, while Premachandra was speaking, a bomb exploded nearly 10 to 15 feet away from the stage, but the police recorded it as a bomb exploding 50 feet away from the stage. Two persons were injured. Unfortunately, no arrests were made in connection with the bomb blast. Athulathmudali demanded an inquiry but nothing came out of the police inquiry.

A meeting was scheduled to be held at Waidya Road, Dehiwala on April 2, 1992, but it was abandoned because thugs destroyed the stage and assaulted Athulathmudali’s supporters. On the following day, the DUNF party organizer for Dehiwala’s house was attacked and property destroyed, also his wife was attacked by thugs, allegedly supporters of President Premadasa.

Again, another important and serious incident happened at the Fort Railway Station on August 7, 1992, when Athulathmudali and Dissanayake and other DUNF supporters were at the station in the morning, collecting signatures from the public to commemorate the first anniversary of the motion to impeach the President.

The DUNF leaders, accompanied by numerous supporters, photographers and journalists, arrived at the station at about 6.30 am to meet the public commuting to work by train and to obtain their signatures of approval to commemorate the first anniversary of the impeachment motion in an effort to impeach Premadasa in terms of the relevant article of the constitution. The first anniversary was due on August 28, 1992.

Suddenly, armed thugs entered the station from the road side and began to attack the DUNF supporters with weapons. A press photographer’s camera was snatched and a man brandished a knife at Athulathmudali, who raised his arms and cried for help. When the DUNF supporters saw the situation they came running towards Athulathmudali. Sensing the mood of the supporters, the attacker with the knife ran away and got into a moving train and disappeared.

Athulathmudali and the DUNF party men went to the Fort police station to make complaints. Lakshman Wijeratne, Assistant Superintendent of Police (ASP) came out of the police station and said, “The police station is closed.”

Another mishap happened on August 29, 1992, when the DUNF was involved in a membership drive at Kawdana, Dehiwala. About 50 to 60 DUNF supporters and members were present when, according to one report, Clement Perera, one of the lieutenants of Athulathmudali, saw a maroon Peugeot 505 car go slowly passed.

Perera recognized Vasantha Weerasekera, an employee of Susil Jayasinghe, the Mayor of Dehiwala -Mount Lavania, seated in the vehicle. Immediately he realized that there may be trouble and he went and told Athulathmudali, who told Perera not to tell others as they could get excited.

Thereafter, Athulathmudali and his supporters started walking along Palliyodara Road, visiting houses and speaking to people and enlisting new members for the DUNF. While this was going on, they saw a group of people walking towards them with cricket bats, baseball bats, sticks, clubs, iron rods and pipes. They went up to Athulathmudali and started assaulting him. One person brandished a pistol, but before any harm was done, Athulathmudali kicked him. Another beat Athulathmudali with a club on his legs. Even Athulathmudali’s security officers received blows.

Subsequently, the assailants ran away towards Dehiwala police station. Athulathmudali then went along with his supporters to make a complaint at the Dehiwala Police Station. It was said that, the Officer in Charge, Eric Perera, who had earlier been the body guard of the woman Minister Sunethra Ranasinghe, the former UNPer. The police treated Athulathmudali with disdain and contempt. They did not even offer him a chair to sit on. They refused to give any regard for the very minister who earlier controlled their destiny. However, his statement was recorded.

Meanwhile, the Government dissolved the seven Provincial Councils on March 16, 1993, and new elections were announced on the same day. It was announced that, the nomination papers to contest in the Provincial Councils should be handed in between April 2 and 8 April 1993. Athulathmudali handed in his papers to contest, seeking the Chief Ministership of the Western Province Council on the DUNL ticket. Others who filed nomination papers to contest the position were: Susil Moonasinghe – the incumbent from the United national Party and Chandrika B Kumaratunga, from the People’s Alliance.

About this time, during the Sinhala New Year holidays in mid April, Athulathmudali requested his secretary to reschedule his meetings for the rest of April, as he wanted to visit the Munneswaram Hindu Temple in Chilaw, for religious ceremonies on April 23.

Originally, 23 April meetings were to be held in the Central province in Bibile, Moneragala, Wellavaya and Hali-Ela. At his request, his meetings for April 16 and 23 were rescheduled and on April 23, it was rescheduled for meetings in the Colombo district – Borella, Aluthkade and Kirulapone.

Meanwhile, Rukman de Silva, the Senior Superintendent of Police, told officers under him, at an instruction class regarding the Provincial Council elections, not to provide police protection to the opposition political parties at their public meetings, but only to provide it to Government party meetings. He also told, not to give police protection to meetings to be held at Kirulapone, where Athulathmudali was scheduled to make an address on behalf of the DUNF candidate. He further added to send police officers to record the speeches and make notes of what was said in the meetings. It was said that this was normally done by the City Intelligence Bureau at Borella.

The public meeting of the DUNF was scheduled to be held at Kirulapone park playground on April 23, approximately four weeks before the Provincial Council elections for the Western Province, due on May 17.

On April the Inspector of Police Ranagala, who was the OIC of Kirulapone, sent two police officers to tape record the speeches made at the meeting. The stage was erected to face the road. Two lights were focused on the stage and about 1,000 people were present. It rained off and on and the ground was wet.

It was reported that Lalith Athulathmudali came to the meeting at about 8 pm. Then the crowd began to increase. As it was drizzling, people moved closer to the stage, some even climbing under it.

At 8.10 pm, Athulathmudali started his address. Suddenly a person approached him and pulled out a pistol and fired three shots. Then one of the bodyguards, Tilak Shanthana, it was told that he fired at the attacker, hitting him on his right abdomen. The assassin shot back at the bodyguard, catching him in the leg before running away.

Meanwhile, Athulathmudali lay fallen on the stage. Both he and the injured bodyguard were taken to hospital, where Athulathmudali was pronounced dead at 8.50 pm on April 23, 1993.

A retired Judicial Officer was informed of the death and he went to the hospital and ordered a post mortem examination.

A police search party, including the Inspector General of Police, scoured the area and several search parties went to playgrounds in the neighborhood, but after a few hours they found nothing.

It was later reported that the next morning, April 24, IP Ranagala, the OIC of the Kirulapone Police Station, received a telephone call. The call was in the Sinhala language and the caller informed that there was a body near Cooperative Stores in Mugalan Road. According to the police, rigor mortis had set in, and the body lay about 200 meters from the stage where Athulathmudali had been shot.

The police found an automatic 9mm pistol with two magazines and several rounds of live ammunition, empty cartridge cases, a hand grenade, a national identity card and a little money.

The Judicial Medical Officer, Colombo Dr L B De Alwis, held a post mortem on the bodies of both victims. He expressed the opinion as to the cause of the death of each.

1. Athulathmudali. Death due to hemorrhage shock from necessarily fatal firearm wounds to the liver, heart and lungs. Two bullets had entered his body. One 9mm slug was recovered from his body.
2. The second victim was identified as Appiah Balakrishnan alias Ragunathan – a Tamil. His death was due to cyanide poisoning. A non-fatal bullet wound was found in his lower back. A 9mm slug was recovered from his body.

The Sri Lankan security forces immediately blamed the LTTE for the killing of Lalith Athulathmudali. As Minister for National Security in the UNP regime, between 1984 and 89, Athulathmudali had aggressively pursued a “dirty war” in the Tamil homelands and unleashed several unrestrained military offensives into the Northeast. So, it was believed that, the LTTE had a motive. The Colombo-based Sinhala-owned press was also quick to fall in line.

The timing of the assassination of Athulathmudali was important. President Ranasinghe Premadasa was still smarting under the ignominy of having to face an impeachment motion brought against him by the DUNF in parliament. Accusing fingers were pointing at Premadasa for the murder of Athulathmudali, despite his repeated assertions of innocence. He pleaded, “Assassinate me if you wish, but don’t assassinate my character, which I have cherished from my childhood.” Yet there existed a strong perception among the Sinhalese that Premadasa was behind the assassination.

At the time of the killing, it was alleged that Ragunathan, whose body mysteriously appeared on the following morning a few hundred yards from the scene of murder, was the assailant who fired the fatal shots that killed Athulathmudali. But later it transpired that Ragunathan, a Tamil youth who came to Colombo to go abroad in search of employment, had been arrested and detained by Colombo police. There was speculation that Ragunathan was shot dead by the police and his body dumped with a cyanide capsule in his mouth to fake his murder. It was an attempt to cover up the real murderer(s). Nevertheless, the Sinhalese-owned press, including The Island, continued to say that Athulathmudali was killed by the LTTE.

A communique from the Presidential Secretariat stated in part, “The person now known to be Ragunathan, alias Appiah Balasingham, shot and killed Mr. Athulathmudali and was later found dead at scene 2. Seriously injured and fearing imminent capture, he undoubtedly took his own life by way of cyanide poisoning …”

The allegation against the LTTE was repeated over and over and newswire services carried it to the world media. The New York Times (May 10, 1993) said, “Ragunathan had been identified as the gunman who killed the opposition leader Lalith Athulathmudali.”

The text of a news release issued by the Presidential Secretariat of Sri Lanka released internationally by the Permanent Mission of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka to the United Nations; July 16, 1993 – The government analyst testified at the Lalith Athulathmudali Commission that swabs taken from the mouth of Ragunathan did not contain even a trace of cyanide. Dr Lalantha de Alvis, the senior most Judicial Medical Officer in Colombo, who conducted the autopsy on the body, had earlier testified that the body smelled of cyanide and that he found pieces of glass in the mouth of the body.

Next: Chapter 56

Posted .

Filed under History.

Comments are disabled on this page.