Print edition : September 09, 2005

The assassination of Lakshman Kadirgamar bears the signature of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Yet, the world hopes that the peace process in Sri Lanka will be carried forward earnestly.

V.S. SAMBANDAN in Colombo


LAKSHMAN KADIRGAMAR, Sri Lanka's Foreign Minister, was assassinated by an "unidentified gunman", suspected to be a sniper from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), in Colombo on August 12. The bullets that extinguished the life of Kadirgamar have also thrown up vital questions on the trajectory and endgame of Sri Lanka's decades-long separatist conflict.

A week after the assassination, the LTTE accepted a call by Colombo to hold talks to "review" the "practical functioning" of the ceasefire agreement. The unending cycle of killing and talking appears set to continue as Sri Lanka grapples with itself in its moment of acute crisis.

In what counts as the most glaring of security lapses, one of the most heavily guarded political leaders in the South Asian region was shot dead by a sniper hiding inside a toilet on the first floor of the house neighbouring his - from a distance of less than 100 metres. Around 11 p.m. on August 12, as Kadirgamar finished his swim, a daily indulgence, the sniper struck.

According to police and media reports, the fatal bullet pierced the septuagenarian's heart. With three bullet wounds and a head injury sustained when he hit a nearby ledge as he fell to the ground, Kadirgamar was rushed to the National Hospital in Colombo at 11-05 p.m. "He was nearly dead when he was brought in," Anil Jayasinghe, Director, Accident Service, at the hospital, told Frontline. A team of surgeons made an attempt to save him. At 12-15 a.m. on August 13 he was pronounced dead and Anil Jayasinghe formally announced Kadirgamar's death.

Around midnight military helicopters took to the skies hoping to trace the assassins, and on the ground over a 1,000 policemen scoured the city. But the killers had escaped.

The next morning President Chandrika Kumaratunga declared a state of emergency after holding a meeting of the National Security Council. The emergency decree provides for the promulgation of the Public Security Ordinance, under which the state has the power to detain and arrest and deploy the armed forces. The government said it declared the state of emergency to enable the police to carry out a manhunt and to pre-empt a breakdown in the security situation.

On August 13, the police gave details of the assassination at a press conference. "Looking at the weapons used and the style, it is definitely the work of the LTTE. There is no other group with weapons like this," said Chandra Fernando, the Inspector-General of Sri Lanka. (As a unitary state, the island-nation has an IG for the entire country.)

President Chandrika Kumaratunga consoles Kadirgamar's wife Sugandi at the funeral in Colombo on August 15. At left is Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse.-ANURUDDHA LOKUHAPUARACHCHI/REUTERS

The details released by the police point to a well-planned and precisely executed assassination. The exact number of assassins involved in the killing is not known. "Maybe one, maybe two, most likely two," the IGP said when asked about the strength of the killer team.

Kadirgamar's private residence - one that he had bought and renovated and where he planned to live after retiring from politics - is at Buller's Lane, an elite and impressive Colombo enclave. Key diplomats live on the same road. Kadirgamar took a lot of pride in this private residence, particularly his personal library. It was, however, his passion for swimming that drew him to the Buller's Lane residence on August 12 as on any other day.

A security guard who was fetching the Minister's footwear saw Kadirgamar collapse as he came out of the swimming pool, and ran towards him, thinking he had fainted. Seeing blood ooze from the bullet wounds, the five security guards in the compound rushed Kadirgamar to the National Hospital.

According to reports, he was cautioned against visiting the private residence even that evening. Kadirgamar had gone to the residence, along with his security guards, after an official function to launch the first journal of the Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies (BCIS), in which the Indian High Commissioner, Nirupama Rao, was the chief guest.

The President's office, in its first reaction, said in a statement that Kumaratunga was "deeply saddened" by the killing and condemned it as an "act of terror". The government, she said, "will not be bowed by such heinous acts of violence and will spare no efforts to bring the perpetrators of this dastardly act to justice".

The first reaction did not name the LTTE. "Lakshman Kadirgamar was felled by political foes opposed to the peaceful transformation of conflict and who were determined to undermine attempts towards a negotiated political solution to the ethnic conflict," the statement said.

The Buller's Lane residence of Kadirgamar and, to the left, the house from the first floor toilet of which the shots were fired.-SENA VIDANAGAMA/AFP

Hours later the LTTE "denied" its involvement in the assassination and attempted to lay the blame on "sections within the Sri Lankan armed forces operating with a hidden agenda to sabotage the ceasefire agreement". Close on the heels of the LTTE's denial, reported in the TamilNet web site, the government went on the verbal offensive.

"The government finds it difficult to accept the denial," Cabinet spokesperson Nimal Sripala de Silva told a press conference. The assassination, he said, "was clearly a violation of the ceasefire agreement". In a televised address on August 14, Kumaratunga blamed the Tigers. "Initial indications of the investigations seem to reveal the responsibility of the LTTE in this brutal murder," she said.

According to the police, the assassination had all the marks of a well-planned and precisely executed LTTE operation. The house chosen by the assassins was a stone's throw away from Kadirgamar's residence, with a narrow lane separating the two compounds. Residing on the ground floor was an old Tamil couple, the wife suffering from paralysis. The police said the man told them he had no indication of what was going on upstairs. They had questioned several others.

The police said the killers had mounted the rifle on a specially crafted tripod about seven feet (about two metres) in height and with a seat for the sniper. Some of the vents in the toilet, which overlooked the swimming pool, had been removed to provide for a clear line of sight.

At a press conference in Colombo on August 13, Sri Lankan Police chief Chandra Fernando shows a photograph of the residence, said to have been taken by the LTTE two weeks before the assassination.-ANURUDDHA LOKUHAPUARACHCHI/REUTERS

The police said they recovered packets of chocolates, cheese, biscuits and snacks from the toilet, suggesting that the killers had kept a sustained vigil. Polythene bags with urine and excreta were also reportedly recovered from the compound, indicating that the killers did not use the flush of the toilet to avoid being detected. With little information available on the investigations, the exact modus operandi has not been made public. The investigations would determine, among other things, how the assassins gained entry into the first floor toilet and how they made their getaway.

The LTTE's signature was evident in the style of execution. The vigil and surveillance, the sniper's staying capacity, and the accuracy of the shot point to a well-trained marksman. An earlier instance of an LTTE sniper at work was the killing of T. Subathiran (Robert), the Jaffna leader of the Eelam People's Revolutionary Liberation Front (Padmanabha Wing), in Jaffna.

FOR an island-nation repeatedly stunned by acts of terrorist violence, the reaction to Kadirgamar's assassination was largely predictable. A sombre weekend descended upon Colombo and mourners gathered outside his official residence.

The once fortified residence was thrown open to the steady stream of mourners, who ranged from the high and mighty of the world to commoners and schoolchildren. Among the foreign dignitaries were India's Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee and External Affairs Minister K. Natwar Singh, Pakistan Foreign Minister Khurshid Mahmood Kasuri and Norwegian Foreign Minister Jan Petersen and his deputy Vidar Helgesen. Official delegations from 12 countries were present at the state funeral held on August 15.

World leaders condemned the assassination, but almost all of them called for a continuation of the peace process and expressed the hope that the ceasefire would not be jeopardised. The government's reaction was restrained and careful. If provocation was an intended outcome behind the killing, it failed.

United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan expressed shock and sadness over the "criminal and senseless" act. In Brussels, the European Union's Foreign Affairs Commissioner said the assassination was a brutal and senseless terrorist act. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said she was "shocked and saddened by the assassination... . This senseless murder was a vicious act of terror, which the United States strongly condemns. Those responsible must be brought to justice." Recalling her meeting with Kadirgamar in June, Rice said: "He was a man of dignity, honour and integrity, who devoted his life to bringing peace to Sri Lanka. Together, we must honour his memory by re-dedicating ourselves to peace and ensuring that the ceasefire remains in force."

At the cremation, Kadirgamar's son Raghavan after performing the final rites.-INDRANIL MUKHERJEE/AFP

The bullets that killed Kadirgamar seemed to have been aimed also at the peace process, of which the stalemated ceasefire agreement had reached its most challenging moment in the past three-and-a-half years. Jan Petersen described the assassination as "a gruesome deed, which is deeply tragic for Sri Lanka". He said: "I condemn this killing of a significant politician and a respected representative for his country.". Striking a note of caution that the "killing puts the peace process in Sri Lanka to a serious test", Petersen said: "It is now of great importance that both parties to the conflict do their utmost to fully fulfil their obligations according to the ceasefire agreement."

Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said he was "greatly shocked and saddened at the tragic news". Beijing condemned the assassination as an "an act of terror" and restated its continued support for the government's efforts to safeguard the island-nation's sovereignty and territorial integrity.

SEVERAL scenarios of how the situation could develop are being talked about even as Chandrika Kumaratunga's younger brother Anura Bandaranaike was appointed the new Foreign Minister. The worst-case scenario is a relapse into war and the challenge to the role of the facilitators, Norway. However, the government's initial reactions and the developments on the ground pointed to a resumption of government-rebel engagement.

The timing of the assassination - at a time when the peace process was in a limbo - had the effect of shocking the country. The simple message it apparently sent across to Colombo was that if talks did not commence there would be more violence. A key point from the history of the negotiations between the Tigers and the government is that the LTTE has never talked from what is perceived as a position of weakness. Kadirgamar's assassination makes the point yet again that the Sri Lankan state can be challenged and the battle taken directly into its heart.

In the aftermath of the July 1999 killing of Neelan Thiruchelvam, an internationally renowned constitutional lawyer and a Tamil United Liberation Front Member of Parliament, an incisive political analyst said: "I think the Tigers will talk now." The LTTE was then on a roll militarily, and by the end of the year, after Chandrika Kumaratunga survived a suicide bomber, it was made public that efforts were on to invite Norwegian facilitation. In the killing of Neelan Thiruchelvam, political analysts saw the LTTE's elimination of an eloquent and respected adviser to the government on constitutional affairs and one of the key brains behind the Draft Constitution.

Kadirgamar's assassination would, to an extent, give the LTTE a "vantage" point in future negotiations with the Sri Lankan state, which has been deprived of one of its best representatives. The LTTE could find it easier to push forward its demands and agenda.

At the 125th Anniversary celebrations of The Hindu in Chennai in September 2003, Kadirgamar and his wife with Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.-N. SRIDHARAN

The Hindu

With the LTTE accepting a government call to hold talks to review the functioning of the ceasefire, another round of negotiations appears round the corner. These talks would be as much about the future of Sri Lanka's political landscape as about the past. Uncertainty over elections is a key unknown that seems to be influencing the course of the conflict-resolution process. Another factor, though distant, is the Norwegian parliamentary elections, scheduled for September 12. The only common denominator in the two electoral processes appears to be that irrespective of the outcome there is unlikely to be a major change in the broad positions taken by the political players in these countries.

However, in Sri Lanka there is a greater element of uncertainty, as the island-nation still does not know when the President's term ends. If it does end in December 2005, as the Opposition United National Party contends, a presidential poll is in the offing. Even without the controversy over the poll, Kumaratunga's government has a bagful of woes to contend with. Minority status in Parliament, separation with former ally Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), and the end-of-term blues that confront a political leader set the backdrop for the LTTE to push for the hardest bargain.

The key issues before the government are the continued political killings and the recruitment of children by the rebels. International opinion favours the state on these issues. Colombo also said it would delink the talks from the post-assassination situation and continue to build international pressure on the LTTE for its "culpability" in the assassination.

The main rebel talking point is its old demand for the evacuation of Sri Lankan security forces from Jaffna's high-security zones, a demand made by LTTE leader V. Prabakaran in the wake of chief rebel negotiator Anton S. Balasingham accepting to "explore federal options" as a possible solution, at Oslo in 2002. Yet another talking point is the operations being carried out by supporters of V. Muralitharan (`Col.' Karuna), the LTTE's former special commander for two eastern districts who broke away from the organisation.

While the forthcoming talks will focus on these issues, the long-term gaze of the Tigers is bound to remain on the politico-military endgame of debilitating the Sri Lankan state and beating it to submission.

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