By Rajan Hoole –
“ Now let us calmly define our position, Watson. Let us get a firm grip of the very little which we do know, so that when fresh facts arise we may be ready to fit them into their places. I take it, in the first place, that neither of us is prepared to admit diabolical intrusions into the affairs of men…” – Sherlock Holmes, in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot
Impressions and Flawed Evidence
We argued in the last chapter that irrespective of the conclusions they reached, the commissions of inquiry marshalled a great deal of evidence. For those who think the issues important, there are valuable leads to pursue their own inquiries. Even discovering that the commissioners reached wrong conclusions by following their arguments is valuable in itself. Getting at the truth in any murder is important. It is a strange pathology of Sri Lanka’s polity that the very sections – the UNP and its media allies – who are the most keen to throw a veil over Athulathmudali’s murder were the ones who sang praises to his management of National Security while he was living. A political culture, in which the most fundamental human virtue of loyalty to one’s friends and colleagues is non- existent, can offer only tragedy. What dignity can a country lay claim to when investigations into the assassinations of its leaders regularly get bogged down in obstruction, obfuscation and falsification?
We will in this section explore the assassinations of Vijaya Kumaratunge and Lalith Athulathmudali. In both instances, the findings of the commissions have run into heavy criticism, and both had implicated leading UNP figures and prominent members of the Police Force. We will try as we have advocated, to go beyond the commission proceedings and findings, by making critical use of them. The exercise, we believe, gives us important insights into the Sri Lankan polity.
The task before the commissions was made extremely difficult by the fact that these violations and assassinations took place during a period when the Police were far from being impartial guardians of the Law. Inevitably, the public were quick to associate perceived motive with guilt. Presidential commissions too left much to be desired during the Jayewardene era and the findings of commissions suffered because the judges on them were seen to be under pressure to arrive at certain conclusions.
The period was also one where norms were not observed by security officials and often not with sinister intention but because work was heavy during the JVP insurgency. A commission when questioning a police officer in public, say, for not submitting the proper papers to the Attorney General in connection with certain detainees, can create an impression that is unfair to the officer. One police officer complained, “The JVP made two attempts on my life while I was going home. No one asked me about that. But now the Commission wants to know why certain papers were not in order.”
There is also the danger that a series of impressions or irregularities can be used to drive a conclusion which would seem invalid if one starts to go into the complexities. The Kobbekaduwe Commission for example unearthed several irregularities. The evidence had been disturbed and the logbook of the ill- fated vehicle had been tampered with. The explosion took place on 8th August 1992, while the vehicle was on a relatively recent diversionary track, which parted from and rejoined the main track. This, if correct, suggested that the cause was not an old undetected mine and, if a recently laid LTTE mine, why a mine in the diversionary track and none in the main track? The British expert, John Wyatt, who studied the available data, gave a technical argument to suggest strongly that the explosion resulted from a device placed in the vehicle, which could hardly have been the work of the LTTE.
Yet, are such considerations adequate to support the conclusion that it was an inside job and that one or more fellow army officers were motivated to commit suicide in the cause of killing Kobbekaduwe? How contentious and thankless the issue was is seen by the fact that an earlier commission comprising three Commonwealth judges concluded in 1993 that an LTTE mine was the cause. Yet, there persisted a demand for a fresh inquiry. Also as mentioned earlier, while the rank and file of the Army appear to be receptive to believing in an internal conspiracy, senior officers who knew the officers concerned in the drama attach no credibility to the internal conspiracy and suicide theory. One officer commented that an explosive device in the vehicle is a good story, but untrue. Others, including an army officer, said that the cause was that Kobbekaduwe had breached his own guidelines to other officers by loading all, including the eight other senior officers killed, into one vehicle. The weight thus activated a mine which lighter vehicles had previously escaped. All that we could definitely infer is the deep polarisation in the country caused by a decade and a half of immoral government.
On the other hand, a police officer investigating his colleagues could intuitively form a strong impression that is invalid as evidence. In the Athulathmudali murder, there were several strong circumstantial factors which at that time, in April 1993, led to an almost unshakeable public belief in foul play by persons in authority, despite the distraction created by the body of the alleged assassin. Some of these factors are: a) Despite Athulathmudali having served five years as national security minister, which made him a potential target, police protection had been removed from him and he was made to protect himself with private security men using unlicensed weapons; b) He had been subject to death threats and he and his colleagues had been attacked a number of times by mobs organised by his erstwhile UNP comrades; and c) His written complaints to the authorities were of no avail, and, there had been a local unexplained power cut at the time of the assassination.
The Commission detailed a police officer to investigate among other things the role of the Police in connection with the fatal meeting. Athulathmudali had applied to the Kirullapone Police for a loud speaker permit for a meeting in the Kirullapone Bazaar, for the evening of 23.4.93. IP Ranagala and Dias Senanayake told the investigating officer that they had been directed by SSP Rukman Senanayake not to issue a loud speaker permit for the bazaar area which is on High Level Road, but to direct the meeting to the municipal grounds away from the main road. The investigator found “bazaar” deleted in the loud speaker permit and “municipal grounds” inserted. He also found that loud speaker permits had been issued for the bazaar area one week before and one week after the date of Athulathmudali’s murder. The latter date was that of Premadasa’s last, or one of the last meetings.
The investigator further found that the Kirullapone Police had disregarded their duty under Section 56 of the Police Ordinance to provide security for the meeting. The sum of all this, resulting from instructions passed down, left a strong impression on the investigating officer. He said that Athulathmudali was ‘trapped’ into the municipal grounds. [Note also the power failure. The assassin only had to come out of the grounds for an easy getaway along dark 8.45 PM streets with no police about.] The Commission Report has today been widely discredited and the investigator is out of the Force. What he said, he strongly believed. Yet, the nuances observed by the investigating police officer that influenced his belief cannot be communicated to the public. An intelligent member of the public could simply hold that there is nothing new in police harassment of opposition candidates.
We are here dealing with cases where there is no admissible evidence or confessions leading to direct links with the principal instigators behind the killings. Several of the key witnesses are dead and the evidence has been destroyed. All that may be possible is to trace the circumstances, place them in as coherent a pattern as possible and point to areas where the responsibility lies. We may note with regard to the Athulathmudali case that sections of the Press, and other interested parties, in an attempt to exonerate the government of the day, have been peddling confessions from alleged LTTE detainees without context or mutual coherence, while ignoring the damning circumstantial evidence. Regarding an internal conspiracy in the Kobbekaduwe affair, we might say that it lacks coherence until it is established that there were such powerful motives among fellow officers to bring about his death along with those of several others in that manner. It has to be something far more than bitter rivalry.
To be continued..