Sri Lanka: The Untold Story, Chapter 59

Queries over Premadasa’s slaying

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

On May 1, 1993, President Ranasinghe Premadasa was near Sulaiman Hospital, in Messenger Street, Colombo, mixing with the crowds, busy organizing the ruling United National Party’s (UNP) May Day procession, which was proceeding towards Galle Face Green, where the president was expected to deliver a keynote address later in the day.

Premadasa urged the slogan-shouting UNP supporters and his party men to march four abreast in an orderly fashion. The time was about midday, when suddenly there was an explosion and in a second, the scene was transformed into a battlefield. Shattered body parts were hurled into the air. The road was splattered with blood and parts of flesh and broken limbs. There was screaming and shouting everywhere, and where moments earlier there had been an orderly procession, now there was chaos and mayhem.

The area was like a battlefield, with police cars and ambulances running round. Police and presidential security guards were scrambling to find the President, but he was missing. The blast was so violent that police did not realize that Premadasa was dead until several hours later, when his ring and watch were identified on a torso in the hospital morgue. The news spread like wildfire that a suicide bomber had assassinated Premadasa.

His death was the latest in a long history of assassinations among the nation’s most powerful political and military figures. Gradually, the country learnt that a suicide bomber had pedaled a bicycle through the parade, and five feet from the president he had detonated the explosives strapped to his body.

The police announced the next day that they believed that the assassination was the work of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the Tamil militant organization that had been fighting a bloody civil war with government forces on the northern end of the island for the past decade.

The government-controlled television compared the demise of the 68-year-old Premadasa to that of Abraham Lincoln, but there was a mixed reaction to the sudden death. Many Sri Lankans said that they found it difficult to grieve for a man who had led one of the world’s most repressive and brutal regimes. “He was a dictator,” said Vijitha Yapa, a former newspaper editor, who said that he had to quit the news business, as a result of Premadasa’s suppression of the press.

“The response to Premadasa’s death was very disturbing,” said Neelan Tiruchelvam, a constitutional lawyer and head of a private Colombo think tank, and also one of the leaders of the Tamil United Liberation Front, who too later succumbed to a bomb explosion by suicide killer. He added, “Instead of reacting in grief and anguish, some people were actually celebrating. It shows how deeply we’re divided.”

This reaction was indicative of the general mood in the country, and the turnout at his funeral procession was embarrassingly thin. As the entourage wound through the neighborhood’s of the city, where he had been born and raised, there was little sign that the nation’s leader had died, aside from places in Colombo Central where white mourning flags fluttered from government offices and business places.

Meanwhile, most rural villages were decorated with traditional religious decorations made out of tender coconut palm leaves and paper lanterns and streamers proceeded to Buddhist temples to mark a Buddhist holiday that fell on the day before the funeral.

Premadasa was accused of violent actions against his political enemies. At one point in his four-year tenure, Sri Lanka had a higher percentage of abductions, deaths and disappearances per capita than any other nation in the world, according to international human rights organizations. A European parliamentary delegation estimated that between 1988 and 1990, as many as 60,000 Singhalese boys and men “disappeared” at the hands of the national security forces during Premadasa’s efforts to crush a revolutionary group called the People’s Liberation Front, and also known by its Sinhalese acronym JVP – Janata Vimukthi Perumuna.
“The government’s brutal counter-insurgency campaign was … characterized by death squad killings, burning bodies left [on] roads as a warning to insurgents, dropping bodies into the sea from helicopters and cremating bodies with no investigation,” according to a report by Asia Watch, a human rights group.

However, the insurgent JVP also frequently resorted to terrorism: One tactic it adopted was to storm the homes of policemen and slaughter their wives and children.

Premadasa applied the same fervor and dictatorial tactics that he employed against the insurgents to economic reform and aid to the poor. Sri Lanka’s economy surged ahead of every other country in South Asia under Premadasa’s privatization and liberalization programs.

Premadasa tore down tenement slums in the heart of Colombo and built modern brick and glass apartment buildings for the city’s poorest residents. He mandated free uniforms and lunches for all schoolchildren and began an ambitious program to provide jobs for the rural poor in the new garment factories.

“Although this is a terrible tragedy,” said Tiruchelvam, “it might give the country a chance to reassess. It is a chance for greater accountability and more collegial decision-making.” Once it was confirmed that Premadasa had succumbed, the UNP selected as a compromise candidate Prime Minister Dingiri Banda Wijetunge to serve out the remaining two years of Premadasa’s term as the acting president.

Wijetunga was sworn in before the Chief Justice on the evening of May 1, the same day that Premadasa was killed.

Subsequently, on May 7, parliament unanimously elected Wijetunge as the third executive president of the country to serve the balance period left in Premadasa’s tenure. Ranil Wickremasinghe took oath as prime minister on that day too.

At the second Provincial Council elections held on May 17, 1993, the ruling UNP won six of the seven councils. Chandrika Kumaratunga of the Podujana Eksath Perumuna – People’s Alliance, won the Chief Ministership of Western Province and was sworn in on May 21. This victory rode against the sympathy wave of Premadasa’s demise, and stood in good stead for her to win the premiership in the 1994 parliamentary general elections, and in the subsequent presidential election that was too held in the same year.

Premadasa was born in Colombo at Dias Place, Keselwatte, in the San Sebastian municipal ward of the Colombo Municipality, on June 23, 1924. Both his father Richard Ranasinghe and his mother Battuwita Jayasinghe Arachchigge Ensina Hamine, who came from Horana in the Kalutura district, were devout Buddhists.

Premadasa had his early religious education at the Purwarama Buddhist temple and later he joined Lorenz College at Skinners Road, Maradana, and finally he studied at St Joseph’s College, also located in Maradana.

At the age of 17 he organized the Suchitra Society. In 1949, Premadasa joined the Labor Party led by A E Goonasinghe and as a young man of 25 years he was soon drawn into municipal politics. He contested and won in the election as a Colombo municipal councilor, at the San Sebastian ward. There, he made a name for himself as an able debater, and by 1955 he served as the deputy mayor of Colombo.

His first attempt to enter parliament was in 1956, when he contested against Dr N M Perera, the leader of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP), as a UNP candidate. He was defeated and his next attempt was in March 1960, when he was returned as the third MP for Colombo Central – a three-member constituency, but he was beaten to fourth place at the July 1960 general elections to parliament at Colombo Central.

In the 1965 parliamentary general elections Premadasa contested as the UNP candidate and was elected as second MP for Colombo Central. After the 1965 parliamentary elections the UNP formed a National Government by collaborating with the Ilankai Thamil Arasu Kadchchi (Federal Party) led by S J V Chelvanayakam. He was appointed as the parliamentary secretary to the Ministry of Local Government. The minister of Local Government was the Ilankai Thamil Arasu Kadchchi nominee, Murugesu Tiruchelvam, a former solicitor-general who was the father of Neelan Tiruchelvam, the renowned constitutional lawyer.

Premadasa’s first appointment to ministerial office was in 1968 when he was promoted as the minister of Local Government in succession to M Tiruchelvam, after the breakaway of the Ilankai Thamil Arasu Kadchchi from Dudley Senanayake’s National Government.

At the 1970 parliamentary general elections, Premadasa was elected as the first MP in the three-member Colombo Central electorate, and he retained his seat also as the first MP in the 1977 elections.

In 1970, when Srimavo Bandaranaike had been in power for seven long years, Premadasa functioned as the Chief Opposition whip. On the floor of parliament, Premadasa proved that he was one of the most able speakers and debaters in the country.

In 1977, with the return of the UNP to power, while J R Jayewardene was Prime Minister, Premadasa served as the Leader of the House and minister of Local Government and Housing, until his elevation as prime minister.

When Jayawardene effected changes in the constitution and became the first executive president of the country, the mantle of the office of the prime minister fell to Premadasa. He was then 54 years old, one of the youngest premiers among British Commonwealth countries, and indeed in the world. There is no doubt that Premadasa rose to the top through his brilliance and hard work. He toiled unceasingly to reach his goal. Everyone, even his worst political rivals, accepted that he was a workaholic and worked systematically. He told at a meeting at his alma mater – St Josephs College, which he visited shortly after his appointment as prime minister – “There are no short cuts for success. There is no substitute for hard work.”

In 1978, Premadasa launched the village re-awakening movement – Gam Udawa – and also brought about a revolution in finding homes for the homeless. These two were his major contributions, which stood him in good stead when he successfully contested the presidential elections in 1989, against the formidable Srimavo Bandaranaike.

But unfortunately the march of Ranasinghe Premadasa was cut short by the suicide bomber, and it was unfortunate that the body parts placed in the coffin were never positively identified as his. One person who never dreamt of becoming president and head of state was D B Wijetunga. Premadasa considered him a loyal servant who did not outwardly display any ambition of furthering his position as the prime minister. After the assassination of Premadasa he was chosen as a compromise candidate to become president, and he soon began to distance himself from Premadasa’s family, his loyalists and his policies.

Subsequent election meetings were held without picture of Premadasa on the stage, instead pictures of D S Senanayake, Dudley Senanayake and J R Jayewardene were colorfully displayed. On the day Premadasa’s statue was unveiled at the place of the explosion, Wijetunge fell ill and was not present, but the very next day he was up and about again.

It was said that Wijetunga did not attend the ceremony because some politicians in the Democratic United Front of Lalith Athulathmudali had allegedly planted a story with the National Intelligence Bureau (NIB) that Wijetunga was to be assassinated by a section of the UNP who were faithful to Premadasa. Wijetunga removed B Sirisena Cooray from his position as general-secretary of the UNP – he was the closest lieutenant and confidant of the late president.

There was no attempt on Wijetunge’s life, but it was alleged that he very successfully assassinated the political futures of the then leaders of the UNP. His statement that there was no ethnic problem, but only a terrorist problem, and that minorities were creepers, effectively destroyed the relationship that the UNP had built over the years with the minorities.

When Premadasa was killed, his family, especially his daughter Dulanjalie Jayakody, who had always stoutly defended her father’s services to the country, requested a commission to be appointed to probe the death.

She firmly believed that a commission would reveal the mystery that surrounded her father’s death, as there were rumors that it was in fact a suicide. A well-orchestrated anti-Premadasa campaign spearheaded by the opposition left no stone unturned to create various theories about the death. These were not based on any substantive evidence or material unearthed by investigative journalism, but was based on the hatred the elite of the country had against Premadasa. They could not accept the fact that a person like Premadasa, from the grassroots, would become the head of a country divided by petty caste and class differences.

Wijetunga replied to Jayakody, stating that no commission could be appointed, as the investigations were not over. Later, the thorough investigation that was done by the Criminal Investigations Department (CID), after recording statements from hundreds of witnesses, showed the involvement of the LTTE.

Though no publicity was given to these investigations and what the officers found out, it was believed that the Premadasa family would have known who was, without any doubt, responsible for the murder of R Premadasa.

The CID recorded statements from a large number of people who gave minute and detailed descriptions of how the Tamil Tiger Spremo Velupillai Prabhakaran ordered the assassination of Premadasa, soon after the abortive peace talks of 1989 and 1991.

During these talks the LTTE had won the confidence of Premadasa, who believed that the LTTE would not harm him. The Tigers were successful in making Premadasa’s supporters and bodyguards believe that the real threat to the president’s security came from the Research and Analysis Wing of India (RAW), the Indian counter terrorists’ intelligence agency. Premadasa was so naive as to believe this. The intelligence agencies of Sri Lanka were fed up with false information constantly fed by the LTTE about RAW to install Gamini Dissanayake as president by assassinating Premadasa.

Premadasa apparently believed those lies. Though the intelligence agencies advised him that a LTTE hit squad was around, he discounted the possibility. He was a friend of the Tamils and sincerely believed in settling the ethnic issue. When the class-conscious elite brought their abortive impeachment motion, the pro-LTTEers parliamentary group supported him. He thought, like most politicians of yesterday, and even today, that the LTTE would dare not kill anyone who was friendly with it.

If you go by their track record, they would never kill a politician who was a racist. They wanted politicians in the South to be anti-Tamil and anti-settlement. Wijetunga alienated the Tamils, but insured himself against a possible assassination bid from the LTTE. But Premadasa had complete faith in the LTTE and discounted the possibility of the LTTE having an agenda of killing Sinhala leaders, who were a threat to the Tamil nation.

When Lalith Athulathmudali was killed, Premadasa thought that RAW was responsible for it, which prompted him to invite experts from Scotland Yard to Sri Lanka to assist the Sri Lankan investigators. Premadasa, according to some reports, was convinced that Scotland Yard would prove his theory about RAW, and the person who would most benefit from such a killing was Gamini Dissanayake. When Jayakody appealed to the Wijetunga government and Chandrika Kumaratunga’s government to appoint a commission to investigate the assassination of her father, she would not have imagined that the Chandrika Banadranaike government would take a clue from this appeal and appoint other commissions, which defamed and degraded the name of Ranasinghe Premadasa.

Ranasinghe Premadasa, according to these commissions, was indirectly responsible for the murder of Vijaya Kumaratunga, and most of the evidence that was led at other commissions was to paint a picture of a megalomaniac that ruled Sri Lanka.

Some members of the family are still appealing to the government to appoint a commission to probe the assassination of Premadasa, with special emphasis on the washing of the scene of the murder by the fire brigade, on the instructions, according to them, of a senior cabinet minister. The government was pleased with this attitude of the Premadasa family. It gave full publicity to this appeal. As far as the government was concerned, this appeal was sufficient to have a media blitz on a certain section of the UNP. And if it did appoint a commission, the net result would be the defamation not only of Premadasa, but his family and his policies.

When a similar request was made by the Gamini Dissanayake family, the government pretended to show some interest, and when the family reiterated that the appointment of the commission should be made on certain conditions stipulated by them, the government quietly left the matter to be forgotten. Fact-finding commissions have become a vogue of governments, which have failed to deliver goods and not kept their promises. Then they appoint some commissions, and the Premadasa family has got into the act by giving the government food for thought to appoint a commission on the assassination of Premadasa, which may tarnish his character, his services to the country and then finally the entire family will be defamed.

Now that again a government led by the United National Party is back in power, since the end of 2001, it is not clear whether Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe will arrange for the appointment of a commission on the Premadasa killing.

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