An eyewitness account of the Lalith Athulathmudali assassination
Shivanthi Ranasinghe talks to Mahendra Amarasekera, who was there when Lalith was shot
Dayantha Athulathmudali (left) and Mahendra Amarasekera at Friday’s launch of book on the Athulathmudali assassination.
Mahendra Amarasekera is not convinced that it was the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam who assassinated Lalith Athulathmudali. Amarasekera was more than a close confidante of Athulathmudali. He was also a collaborator of the impeachment motion bought against then President Premadasa, Assistant Secretary of the rebel Democratic United National Front and witness to his shooting.
Athulathmudali, he attests, was a very nice man. He could make even a boring subject interesting. Indeed, Amarasekera met Athulathmudali first as a young law student and Lalith was lecturing at the Law College. “When it is Lalith who is lecturing, everybody comes,” he remembers.
He can also be very tough, even ruthless, he recalls. “The decisions he took concerning the LTTE, and on the Vadamarachchi operation – it was the LTTE who had problems with Lalith. Lalith wanted to go ahead with the Vadamarachchi but he was stopped by JR because the pressure from India. Was he given the mandate by JR, like Mahinda Rajapaksa gave Sarath Fonseks, they would have beaten the terrorists.”
Image googled and added by TW
Interestingly, during JR Jayewardene’s tenure, according to Amarasekera, Athulathmudali and Ranasinghe Premadasa had a cordial relationship. Premadasa trusted Athulathmudali and when a difficult issue arose, would always say, “ask Lalith, he’ll know what to do.” They both strongly opposed the Indo-Lanka Accord and boycotted events associated with it.
People close to Premadasa however resented this friendship and “carried tales.” Even though Hema Premadasa realized what was happening, she was unable to stop these seeds of distrust germinating. She was specially fond of Athulathmudali.
“During the impeachment,” says Amarasekera, “she kept calling Lalith as she wanted to somehow patch this up. But he would gesture to me that he was not in the room and always avoided her calls.”
Before things soured between Athulathmudali and Premadasa, their common ‘enemy’ was Gamini Dissanayake.
“JR played a double game with Lalith and Gamini. The question was who will take over from JR? Both Lalith and Gamini were at loggerheads for the leadership.
“So JR called Lalith one day and said, ‘I want you to take over the UNP, but you are still too young. Premadasa had done a lot for the party. So shall we put Premadasa?’.
“Lalith obviously couldn’t refuse.
“JR had told the same thing to Gamini. Gamini relating this to me said, ‘Mahendra, how could I say no?’
Even after Lalith and Gamini got together, they could never resolve this issue who should be the leader and the deputy. “Had the impeachment been successful, it would’ve created another power struggle because even with the DUNF, there was a problem with the leadership. There were lot of disagreements – though not openly. Eventually, Gamini agreed to let Lalith take over for some time. So at the time he was killed, he was the leader. Maybe they had some understanding. But they were not happy about it.”
According to Amarasekera, there was no defining moment or specific incident that made Athulathmudali and Dissanayake decide to bring an impeachment motion against Premadasa. It was a cumulative effect.
“Premadasa was never on good terms with Gamini. Premadasa got PM Wijetunga to resign, which automatically dissolves the cabinet. Then, he gave Lalith the Ministry of Education, but didn’t give Gamini anything.
“Then came 1989 general elections, and Lalith contested from Colombo. Sirisena Cooray finished second behind Lalith. Premadasa didn’t like it because there was a massive gap between the first and the second places. Sirisena was the UNP Secretary General and Premadasa’s man. So, Cooray and Premadasa decided to remove Lalith from Colombo district, and send him to Kalutara district because his home town was Agalawatta. That’s the excuse, but the real reason was Lalith would be a threat to Cooray.
“Lalith got extremely angry about it.”
Premadasa obviously had become a very unpopular leader.
“They wanted to get rid of Premadasa. It was the Speaker, MH Mohamed, who came up with the idea of an impeachment. He pointed that according to the Constitution, there’s a provision for an impeachment. Many didn’t know what this impeachment was and were calling it ‘peachament’.
“The important thing is that when there’s an impeachment motion, and the Speaker entertains it, the president can’t dissolve parliament. So, the MPs were assured that the parliament won’t get dissolved. So their seats were safe. All what they were going to do is get Premadasa out. The MPs will remain in office.
“An impeachment motion is not easy. Once you get the parliamentary majority, you have to go to Supreme Court and then come back to Parliament. But the idea was to keep the MPs in place, send Premadasa packing and find another person as the presidential candidate.”
Once the impeachment motion failed, Athulathmudali, Dissanayake and their loyalists were sacked from the UNP. The Supreme Court too held that they had been dismissed properly.
“That means, they lost their seats,” observes Amarasekera. “This was the only instance where MPs who resigned or went to the other side lost their seats. Now how many people cross over? But Sarath N Silva gave a judgment and after that nothing happened.”
After they were sacked, they formed the DUNF as they needed a political party.
After forming the DUNF, recalls Amarasekera, Athulathmudali had a lot of problems from the UNP.
“After the impeachment was exposed, he had to address parliament. There were a lot of UNP fellows, with green flags, trying to stop his vehicle. But I took him from the Sri Jayawardenpura hospital side and he managed to get inside.
“Then, he was assaulted in Dehiwela and had to use crutches. There were so many other incidents like that one. But Lalith continued to address many meetings, all over the country – except the North and the East.
“The government didn’t give him any security. So, it was one of his former security officers, Mr. Muthubanda, who was a retired SSP, who managed his security. He was very unhappy as he didn’t have sufficient men to do the job. He asked me to speak to Lalith about it.
“So, I went one early morning. Lalith and Srimani were having breakfast and I joined them. While chatting with them, I said, ‘you have to do something about your security. People are going to kill you, you are a target’.
“He got very angry with me. He is someone who doesn’t like to be told what to do. I said, ‘Srimani, please use your influence on this man and tell him, because his life is in danger.’
“Then he barked at me, ‘so you want me to stop all my meetings and stay at home?’
“‘No, that’s not what I’m asking you. I’m asking you to increase your security. You go to any meeting you want. But at least put security guards at the four corners of the stage.’
“He agreed, but I persisted and asked when he’s going to do it. He said, ‘I’ll do something on Monday.’ But he was killed on Friday – two or three days after I spoke to him.
“On April 23, 1993 evening he had two meetings – one at Hulftsdorp and the other one at Kirulapone. We were worried about the Hulftsdorp because that’s Premadasa’s territory, Sucharitha was almost next door. I didn’t go for that meeting, but I promised him to be there at Kirulapone.
“When I went to Kirulapone meeting, I noticed something very odd. It was around seven-ish, but all the street lights were switched off and not a single police officer on the road. Kirulapone Police station just there – round the corner. But there was not a single police officer. I thought it was very funny. It can’t be the work of the LTTE could it?
“The meeting had started, and there were so many speeches. It started to rain, and people took shelter under the stage. I also went under and casually commented, ‘I don’t know what yakshayas are here’. We didn’t know then, but the assassin had also been under that stage.
“When Lalith came, it was just past eight. There were a lot of crackers and wild cheering. He got onto the stage, waving at the crowds and sat in the front row. Then, he saw me behind.
“I asked him, ‘Sir, how was the Hulftsdorp meeting?’
“He was very happy. He said, ‘very successful. No incidents’. That was a hint at me. He then made plans with me to go to Badulla with him early next morning. Then, he got up to speak, and again, there were a lot of crackers. Throughout his speech, there was this odd cracker and after a while people stopped taking any notice. Then, when the shots were fired, we thought they were crackers.
“He was talking and had his hand raised to make a point and suddenly I heard, thud, thud, thud. Then I saw Lalith’s security was exchanging fire with a man, who was going backwards. There were shots flying over our heads. When I looked at Lalith, he had fallen. I rushed to him. I tried to carry him, but he was a deadweight. There was blood all over him and on my shirt also. He looked at me. Opened his eyes, twitched his lips as if he wanted to say something, he couldn’t. Then, he closed his eyes. He didn’t die there.
“A lot of people came to help to take him to the car. I shouted at the driver and directed him to go to Sri Jayawardenepura, because I knew the same surgeon and team that saved Lalith after the Parliament bombing were working at that hosital. Also, that surgeon was a close friend of Lalith’s.
“But the driver turned the car the other way to the General Hospital. I was told – I was not there, that he was just kept there for about 40 minutes before any doctor came to see him. I jumped into my car and drove as fast as I could to Jayawardenepura. I met Dr. Yogeswaran and said, “Yoga, come! Lalith is shot.”
Immediately he came and went straight into the theatre. After sometime, Yogeswaran came and said, ‘I don’t think he can make it.’ Again he went in and then he came back and told Srimani, ‘we’ve stopped resuscitating. He’s gone.’
“That’s the time Mr. Gamini Dissanayaka walked in. I think he has come from home. He was wearing his sarong, not the national dress or anything. Just the normal sarong and bush shirt. He broke down.
“The Medical Superintendent told me, ‘I’m not taking him to the morgue. I’m sending the body to the ICU.’ I asked why. He said, “If people get to know, there can be problems here. So, don’t say he’s dead.’
“I said, ‘I’m sorry. Thousands of people are outside waiting. They have a right to know that their leader is gone.’ I told his closest aides that he’s gone and the word spread.
“At that time, Ronnie Gunasinghe, he was Premadasa’s police SSP I think, he came and said, ‘we have put a police post in Maradana Police. Anyone who wants to make a statement can go there.’
“I said, ‘that’s very strange, he just died. How did you manage to open a police post so soon?’ He didn’t answer.
“Anyway, he was now taken to the ICU and we all left. Around one o’clock, I got a call from Dinesh Gunawardena, MP. When he had heard of the incident, he had come to see Lalith. When they said he was at the ICU, Dinesh had gone there and found him dead. Now Dinesh being such a nice man, he didn’t want to leave the body alone. Until we went to the hospital, Dinesh was there with the body.
“The very next day, Mrs. Bandaranaike came and asked me what happened. Then she put her hand around Srimani and said, ‘be brave my young girl, I also went through this same thing’.
“It was estimated that more than a million people came to the cemetery. That may be true. Then, there was tear gas. That can’t be the LTTE again. The people were not restive. The crowd was quite peaceful. But suddenly there were canisters. I don’t know from where it came. And there was a plane. An aircraft that went, and there were a lot of talk about it. Whether it was sent by the government to drop the canisters of tear gas, no one knew.
“Also they say, I don’t know how accurate, 120 people per minute passed his coffin at his residence day and night for six days. How accurate I don’t know. Right throughout people came, but whether 120 per minute I don’t know. Anyway, that’s their estimate.
The Visionary We Lost
“Lalith obviously supported free trade,” states Amarasekera. “He also had this idea of putting a highway from Colombo to Jaffna. He said, that’ll make the distance shorter and time taken to cover it less. This was his vision after settling this terrorist issue. He wanted to take the Jayawardenepura hospital to international medical standards like the Apollo in India. So people will come here for medical treatment. So we get foreign exchange and hospitals improves. Like that, he had so many plans.
“The other thing is the Mahapola. Most of the beneficiaries have not even seen Lalith. They were not born 24 years ago. So, I was making an appeal from Parliamentarians from both sides, to change the name ‘Mahapola’ to Lalith Athulathmudali Scholarship Act. The Mahapola is there to stay. No government will have the nerve to abolish that. There’ll be chaos in the country, if anyone tried to do so. But time will come that no one will know that it was Lalith who was responsible for the Mahapola.
“Mahapola name came because he had a pola – you know like the Sunday Fair. He used to get schools, and ask all these big companies to have stalls. So, they pay and get stalls. People come and buy from them – like in a pola. The school that gives their premises, get money or have some buildings put for them. So they also benefit.
“So, he wanted to get a big pola. That’s how pola became Mahapola. Recently I saw in Peradeniya, they had demolished a plaque build in his name. They wanted to put up a hall. The day before it was to be unveiled, some students had demolished it. I said, these people must realize they have only demolished a cement block, but they can’t demolish the name of Lalith Athulathmudali, who has done yeoman service to the country and has made an indelible mark in the political history of Sri Lanka.
“I don’t think they have Mahapolas anymore. It came under the Trade Ministry, he was the Trade Minister at that time. All these polas were organized by the Minster of Trade. During Mahinda Rajapaksa’s time, Johnston Fernando – one of Lalith’s loyalists, he was the trade minister, he organized it. Now I don’t see anywhere anyone having these Mahapolas. At least once in two months they used to have and raised a lot of money.
“Had he survived, things would have been very much different for our country. Both Lalith and Gamini were very tactful. Mrs. Bandaranaike had a lot of respect for Lalith. I remember, for 1988 Provincial Council election Lalith contested from Colombo, Chandrika from Gampaha district and I can remember Mrs. Bandaranaika asking him, whether it would be okay to let Chandrika contest from Gampaha. Lalith assured it won’t be a problem.
“He never forgot what SWRD did for him. While he was in Oxford, his father died and he didn’t have money to continue his education. SWRD was an Oxford graduate and the secretary in the Oxford Union, So, SWRD bought a motion in parliament, to pay for Lalith’s education and got him a scholarship. When he became the president of the Oxford Union, SWRD told him, “what Mahamudali couldn’t do, Podimudali somehow managed!”
Amarasekera is not sure what would have been the situation if both Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake had survived. Both are equally competent and ambitious. The only thing he is assured is our country would have been in a different place today.