By Rajan Hoole –
Political Murders, the Commissions and the Unfinished Task – 4
The eight days, which separated the murder of Lalith Athulathmudali on 23rd April 1993 and that of Premadasa on 1 May, were marked by stormy emotions. Premadasa’s alleged complicity in the first was widely aired. Those who were keenly struck by this atmosphere felt uneasy about accepting the LTTE’s complicity in the murder of Premadasa. One instance concerned a group of persons, whom it is said, in paying their respects to the body of Athulathmudali, swore that they would get Premadasa.
Another striking testimony came from a journalist who closely associated with Athulathmudali. The latter had good reason to fear for his life (Sects. 19.1 & 19.6). When the journalist once went to see Athulathmudali and climbed upstairs, Athulathmudali came out of the door and addressed him in a defiant tone, “So you are the one who is always cautioning me about my security? Let me tell you, if anything happens to me, Premadasa will not live another week!” The journalist asked him, “But does Premadasa know that? If not what’s the point; you will be dead!” Athulathmudali ignored the question and changed the subject. Just after Athulathmudali’s murder, a remark to the same effect was made to the journalist by a member of the former’s family. When the journalist pressed him further, he went silent.
A senior police officer who checked up on the investigation into Premadasa’s murder said that they came up against three separate plots to assassinate Premadasa on that fatal day. Given the circumstances, this is entirely plausible. In the rumour mills of Colombo, there was an expectation that something would happen soon. Where does Babu come into this?
Babu had been, as revealed earlier, a business partner of Saman Sujeeva alias Raja, with whom he ran a grocery store and milk bar. Now we come to aspects that were not fully revealed. We reliably learn that Babu was introduced to Raja by none other than Mohideen, Premadasa’s valet. More than the shop, an important part of their business was to hire lorries, obtain passes for them to carry goods to Jaffna, and convey the lorries and passes to Tamil merchants for a huge fee. The passes were obtained through Premadasa’s Sucharita office by Mohideen and a relative of Raja’s. This relative was a peon at the office. The proceeds were shared.
Those in this circle knew of Babu’s LTTE links, and, money being the principal basis of the relationship, curiosity was not pushed too far. Those who are yet alive find it difficult to believe that Babu killed Premadasa. The testimony that Mohideen was the one who introduced Babu points to some strong conclusions.
The relationship between Mohideen and Premadasa was as Rajapakse has testified, very close and almost a filial one. In the particular culture of that area with strong underground links, things like making money on the side and an occasional wild night would have been passed off as peccadilloes. There is a sad human aspect to the last days of Premadasa. He was a lonely hardworking man. His wife was living separately from him. He slept alone in his bedchamber with Mohideen sleeping out across the door, and in the morning giving him his brew and slippers. That was how close Mohideen and Premadasa were, and Premadasa who came up the hard way was a shrewd judge of men.
This relationship leaves little room for doubt that Mohideen took Babu in hand and set him up in the area with Premadasa’s knowledge and consent. Babu’s supposedly free access to Sucharita suggests something more. It also explains why the PSD and Premadasa’s security men in general were tolerant of Babu’s presence. According to a police official, if in Premadasa’s time someone had taken up with him the presence of someone like Babu, he would have brushed it aside.
Those who would fault Premadasa may do well to realise that he was in his own way doing hardly more than what a good section of the peace lobby has been advocating all the time. This lobby also blamed the resumption of war in April 1995 on President Chandrika Kumaratunge for not despatching banned items to Jaffna fast enough, despite the many uncertainties. Premadasa appears to have been talking to the LTTE and doing what is in peace parlance ‘confidence building’, by permitting the transport of banned items to the LTTE through devious channels.
Premadasa understood the LTTE in a particular way and admired the Leader. He never took political packages seriously, and his way, he believed, was the only way to deal with them. Although the case for identifying Babu as the suicide bomber in that instance may not be
legally tight, trying to exclude this possibility takes us into speculating on complicated scenarios that are not remotely borne out by any evidence. It is quite possible that there were difficulties in reaching an agreement and the LTTE decided to kill Premadasa.
Moreover, it is Prabhakaran’s way to overcome an internal crisis within the LTTE by fomenting another crisis elsewhere. In 1990, Mahattaya, to strengthen his position, wanted the deal with Premadasa to go on. But Prabhakaran aborted it and started the second round of war. The time when Premadasa was killed was also the time when Prabhakaran was launching the final crackdown on Mahattaya, resulting in the latter’s torture and disappearance. A good deal had changed inside the LTTE during Babu’s long residence in Colombo. Was Babu’s position in any way affected by this?
The LTTE has never before nor afterwards used a man of Babu’s stature and experience as a suicide bomber. He was a high quality secret agent who had built up a network in Colombo and there seemed no need to throw away all this. A witness who was among those questioned by the Police gave two reasons for his scepticism about their conclusions. According to him, it was only later that the Police identified with Babu the rider who came on a bicycle and intruded into Armour Street. Earlier, he said, it was held that Babu had been with Mohideen. He also said that there were six corpses at the blast-site that had not been identified. This we have also learnt from others.
These make us alive to the possibility that there was something going on there independently of Babu, which ties up with there having been other murder conspiracies on that same day. Moreover, if Babu wanted to kill Premadasa, he could have done it on so many other occasions. The man on the bicycle had, as it were, fortuitously intruded upon Premadasa, unless he had been directed by accomplices. Babu had the credentials and contacts to have been an uncontroversial presence among Premadasa’s group. The story about Babu having come on a bicycle is, as it stands, a Police story and no more.
Now if anything were to happen to Premadasa, Babu’s position would have become very vulnerable. Some ministers close to Premadasa would have known about him, but there is nothing to suggest that they would have continued the connection in his absence. The emotional bond with Prabhakaran leading to a particular approach to the problem was Premadasa’s alone. Babu who had his ears close to the ground would have picked up ominous signals about possible attempts on Premadasa. Under these conditions, it is quite conceivable that Babu would have gone about in a suicide kit, with the intention of ending it all the moment he sensed something amiss. This may explain the known facts, taking into account the doubts and difficulties expressed, but we may never know for certain. The LTTE journal Eelanatham then published in Jaffna referred to Babu ambiguously as a ‘Thatkodayali’ rather than a ‘Thatkolayali’. The former means ‘one who gave himself’ and the latter, ‘one who killed himself’.
Further indications of Babu’s closeness to the Premadasa circle come from the nature of the Police investigation and the absence of meaningful judicial proceedings. Premadasa was gone, but then there was the question, what happens to all those in the PSD, CID, CDB and the DIG (Metropolitan) whose task it was to protect Premadasa, and whose business it was to know about Babu, and yet signally failed? The Press was periodically complaining that banned items were going to Jaffna in lorries, which were waved on at checkpoints and that huge commissions were involved. Yet nothing was done. It thus suited many in positions of power to sweep the whole matter under the carpet.
Nevertheless, there have been instances in Colombo where persons inadvertently harbouring the LTTE had their house blasted in rough justice by the security services. In the Premadasa murder, only one person – Raja – one of the most insignificant men in the Babu episode, is known to have been punished. He was in prison for 9 months, during which time he forfeited under the PTA all his property in the business jointly run by him and Babu. He came out and remained stone-broke. There was a good deal more that was swept under the carpet.
We have also received testimony, which is credible under the circumstances, that it is not difficult in that area to make contact with LTTE agents and make a deal that pays well. With the kind of influence someone like Babu was able to wield, one cannot rule out logistical help from Colombo’s underworld in the assassination by the LTTE of Ranjan Wijeratne, who was then becoming a nuisance to underworld interests.
Our next case suggests that the area had right along been closely monitored by party men under the Premadasa faction and it was difficult to set up a base there which challenged this group. Apart from Premadasa’s own death, it also has a bearing on the Athulathmudali case and the role of the Police in the affair.
To be continued..