By Vijitha Yapa
Lalith Athulathmudali is by far the only politician whose life has had a profound impact on me. I lived in Classen Place in Havelock Town when he moved into a residence on Paget Road and we became virtual neighbours. During our walks together, the changing political scenario was the main topic on which he chose to dwell.
On the morning of the signing of the Indo-Sri Lanka Peace Accord in 1987, Athulathmudali said he was boycotting the ceremony at the President’s House, adding: “By midnight, the Indian troops will be in Jaffna.”
I promptly visited the Sunday Times office, and asked Tyron Devotta and photographer Pushpakumara Matugama to travel to Jaffna. Their exclusive reports and photos subsequently helped establish the newspaper among its readership.
Wondering how to turn disaster into triumph, the arrest of the 13 LTTE leaders by the Indians, and Athulathmudali’s insistence to JR and the Indian Peacekeeping Force (IPKF) that they must be brought to Colombo was a turning point.
When Sirisena Cooray refused President Ranasinghe Premadasa’s request to help him form a cabinet, the latter furiously claimed I was trying to separate him from the former and publicly attacked me at Gangaramaya.
So on the night Richard de Zoysa was abducted, Athulathmudali phoned me and warned: “You’re next on the list.”
He asked me to move into his Inner Flower Road residence; but instead, I moved into the Lanka Oberoi hotel until I could take the first flight out to Singapore. A few hours later however, he phoned my wife and said “they found Richard’s body. There is turmoil. You can ask Vijitha to come back.”
So when Professor of Forensic Medicine Ravindra Fernando – the author of Murder in Ceylon based on the famous Sathasivam case and Murder in the Vicarage on the sensational double murder by Father Mathew Peiris – said he wanted to write a book on the truth of Athulathmudali’s assassination, I was one of the first to welcome it.
Fernando generally delves into meticulous detail; but this book is different, for the murderer is dead and there was no trial – and there are yet many unanswered questions.
Athulathmudali, who was wearing his bulletproof vest all day, had taken it off in the car before the Kirulapone meeting, having said it was too hot. Was it fate? Not knowing Athulathmudali had removed the vest, the assailant fired the bullets from the side.
Another interesting fact was the momentary absence of Athulathmudali’s key security person SSP Muthu Banda who had been on the stage throughout the meeting except when he left to chase away Tilak Shantha (an army deserter who had previously been employed in Athulathmudali’s security team). Shantha then waited under the stage, and became part of the drama when he shot at the assailant and injured him.
But in his initial statement to the police, Shantha didn’t say he had shot the assailant. It later transpired that his gun was unlicensed. It was only in a second statement that he admitted having had a gun that had jammed. But Shantha nevertheless said he had shot the assailant and also maintained that he’d never fired that gun before.
The body of the assassin Ragunathan was discovered on a side road the next day. The Scotland Yard team assisting in the investigations accepted that Ragunathan had scaled the wall as evidenced by the trail of blood on it and the bullet found in his body that had been fired from Shantha’s pistol.
At the Accident Ward in the General Hospital, the pair of trousers worn by Shantha that may have had signs of powder burns or smoke had been discarded. Strangely, Athulathmudali’s clothes had been taken from the Accident Ward and were found discarded in a dustbin at the exit of the building – although Fernando doesn’t think this is suspicious given that it’s a common occurrence.
Many years later, an LTTE fighter named Jebanesan – who was arrested in 1996 in Thandikulam – confessed that he was associated with Ragunathan who allegedly killed Athulathmudali. A special Presidential Commission inquiring into the assassination had heard of Jebanesan through the media, taken charge of him and strangely released him the next day.
The Presidential Commission ridiculed the Scotland Yard report that named Ragunathan as being the assassin. It felt that Sirisena Cooray was “directly concerned and a member of the conspiracy to assassinate the late Mr. Lalith Athulathmudali, procure police officers and make up a false scenario in respect of Ragunathan’s death.”
Moreover, the Commission charged that Premadasa was involved in the conspiracy to assassinate Athulathmudali with others doing his bidding.