By Rajan Hoole –
The 1990s: The Culture of Untruth and a Perilous Vacuum Part 2
To a Government used to thriving on crises, the assassination of Ranjan Wijeratne came as both a setback and an opportunity. He was killed in a car bomb blast in Havelock Road on 2nd March 1991. Killed along with him were 25 civilians and 6 STF men who were in his escort. Despite there being several reported complications, the LTTE were believed to be responsible. Several questions were raised in the Press at that time as to whether the LTTE could have acted alone. These concerned logistics and intelligence. There were also reports of anonymous telephone calls warning some persons in the area before the incident.
At one level, Wijeratne was a failed strategist. Trying the methods which succeeded against the JVP in the North-East had swelled the LTTE’s ranks and got the Army bogged down. Yet it was he, who as minister, had regularly visited the soldiers in the front, kept a sense of movement and boosted the morale of the troops.
Wijeratne was not a normal politician. Blunt and straight talking, he remained the successful planter in politics. He was known to be honest. It was suggested by a senior journalist that Wijeratne was probably the only UNPer who, during the insurgency, did not maintain back- door contact with the JVP. A particular impression about him needs to be questioned – that he was content to play faithful second fiddle to Premadasa. However, others better informed maintain that he was ambitious and no less so than Gamini Dissanayake or Lalith Athulathmudali. Premadasa owed to him the presidency and repaid the debt by making him foreign minister and deputy defence minister. Equally, it was true that had not Premadasa been made presidential candidate through Wijeratne’s efforts, the power the latter wielded would have been modest.
His role in suppressing the JVP insurgency and then fighting the LTTE made Wijeratne very powerful. Premadasa is said to have been unhappy about Wijeratne executing Wijeweera without referring to him. There was a difference of approach. Ranjan Wijeratne regarded rebels with an elitist contempt. Premadasa had no qualms about rights and wrongs and accepted power as an unscrupulous game, but he emotionally identified himself with the social underdog. He pandered to the ideological propensities of the Sinhalese elite as a means to power and not because they mattered to him. His private detestation of the Sinhalese elite sometimes surfaced in below-the-belt shots at the Bandaranaikes in Parliament.
Premadasa’s attitudes being so, it is not surprising that he believed that he who rose from being the social underdog through hard effort and strategy, was united in a common bond with the rebel leaders Wijeweera and Prabhakaran. In the case of the latter Bradman Weerakoon, who was privy to the minds of several leaders, confirms this in his book, Premadasa of Sri Lanka. According to Weerakoon, Premadasa regretted not having been able to meet Prabhakaran, and earnestly believed that had they met they could have readily resolved their problems. Although it was wishful thinking, Premadasa’s approach to the LTTE, as unprincipled as it was, contained a hard core of sincerity. It should not come as a surprise if Premadasa maintained private communication channels to leaders of both rebel groups as was generally believed.
Ranjan Wijeratne was the practical man from the Plantation Raj who charged headlong once he made up his mind. His instinctive feudal approach succeeded with the JVP, but backfired in the case of the LTTE. Yet he was one man the Army could trust. Good or bad, right or wrong, he took the responsibility. At meetings with political leaders after the war with the LTTE recommenced in June 1990, Wijeratne made no bones about what he was doing. At one of these meetings, a leader of a Tamil group brought to his notice the Army having taken away several youths in an area in the East. Wijeratne responded, “If they are your cadres, you say so and I will release them. Otherwise, the matter does not concern you.” He left little to the imagination about what would happen to them. Wijeratne was not the suave politician, who would say that he was not aware, promise to make inquiries, and then forget about it. If it later became an issue, the suave kind would simply blame it on the security forces and evade responsibility. Wijeratne did not do that.
Though far from being a leftist, Wijeratne earned the admiration of the Left, which bore the brunt of the JVP’s terror. He was straight talking, so that all knew where they stood. Even the SLFP, which in 1989 came under attack from the JVP, felt grateful to Wijeratne. By comparison, the Left were wary of Premadasa’s deviousness, and particularly so when he tried to make deals by releasing JVP detainees in custody who then went hunting for the Left. This widespread admiration for Wijeratne was one reason for the silence in the South, when from June 1990, Wijeratne licensed prodigious massacres in the North-East.
There is also reason to believe that Wijeratne did not approve of death squads maintained by UNP ministers during the JVP insurgency using personnel from the security forces. For him even in the killing business there should be order – that is, all activities under the Ministry of Defence. DIG Udugampola was the kind of operator after Wijeratne’s own heart. Udugampola’s work in the North Central Province and then Central Province can be described as straight police action. The vice and corruption under UNP patronage that became so prominent in Colombo after the JVP insurgency would have irked Wijeratne. He formed the Bureau of Special Operations (BSO) with DIG Premadasa Udugampola as its head and started cracking down on these activities. This received a very favourable response from the public. But in doing so Wijeratne was challenging the very section of the UNP that formed Premadasa’s power base. Had it gone to its logical conclusion, Wijeratne would have become undisputed leader of the UNP. With Wijeratne behind him, Udugampola went against dens of vice using methods of the kind for which he had become well-known. Just then, a car bomb ended Wijeratne’s earthly sojourn.
Wijeratne’s death was quickly followed by speculation about foul play from inside the Government. The Tigers were blamed of carrying out the attack although they denied it. But the question being asked was whether they acted alone. There was widespread skepticism about whether the Police would do an honest investigation into the assassination. Where the security forces were concerned, they lost the one man in the Government whom they trusted. They were now faced with the prospect of having to fight and die for leaders whom they saw as being capable of any skulduggery to attain their ends. From March 1991 to the end of 1995 the security forces did nothing decisive to break the deadlock in the North-East. There was no effective defence minister for the rest of the UNP Government’s term.
Life in Colombo had an appearance of normality. But the Government had died. The City was rife with tales of intrigue. In the ministries, men went about their chores as sleep- walkers. The Government had become incapable of any initiative to address the country’s pressing problems. The iron moral laws that govern the destinies of men cannot be breached with impunity.
To be continued..