Peace-maker as terrorist target

Print edition : August 14, 1999

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam strikes yet again at reason by killing Neelan Tiruchelvam, the eminent intellectual and constitutional expert and liberal democrat, by using a human bomb.

JULY has been the most dreaded month in Sri Lanka, and July 1999 will be remembered for decades to come as the one that witnessed the silencing of a voice of reason on the island nation's political and legal scene. On July 29, a male suicide bomber kille d Dr. Neelan Tiruchelvam, vice-president of the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF). With this gruesome display of its killing prowess, the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) has demonstrated yet again its intolerance towards any alterna tive, even in a conceptual form, to its ultimate goal of a separate Tamil homeland.

Like on any other normal working day, the internationally renowned constitutional expert undertook the short drive from his house at Colombo's posh Rosemead Place to his law firm, Tiruchelvam Associates, located at Kynsey Terrace at the end of the road. What turned out to be his last ride commenced around 9.15 a.m. Rosemead Place is part of Colombo's sterile zones as Prime Minister Srimavo Bandaranaike resides there. Neelan Tiruchelvam's Nissan car was at the crowded intersection at the end of the road when the suicide bomber approached him. The killer struck barely a few yards from Tiruchelvam Associates.

According to the police, the killer, who carried a bomb weighing 5 kg, was seen moving towards the car, passing off as a man in a hurry to cross the road. He walked between the Nissan and the escort van that carried security personnel, moved closer to th e rear left, which Neelan Tiruchelvam was in the habit of occupying, and triggered the explosive device.

Neelan Tiruchelvam.-SRIYANTHA WALPOLA

In the intensity of the blast, the door caved in and the mutilated body of Neelan Tiruchelvam was thrown across the rear right door. The operation was executed with such precision that only the target was struck. The security officer, Inspector Farouk Mo ulana, who was seated in the front seat, and the driver, Premasiri, survived with injuries.

All that is known about the killer is that he was dressed in a blue-checked shirt and black trousers and was seen by the slain leader's security guards, who were following the car in a police jeep. While Inspector Farouk surveyed the crowded traffic inte rsection, a policeman in the jeep spotted the killer a few seconds before the blast. As the killer sidled closer to the door, the policeman became suspicious. His act of drawing the gun to shoot coincided with the triggering of the bomb.

Seconds after the blast, confusion descended on the scene. Once the fire that enveloped Tiruchelvam's vehicle subsided, the body was found slouched forward on the right side of the rear seat, head and arms drooping lifelessly. The remains of the assassin were strewn across the road. A severed head, a severed leg and a mass of flesh were the "only evidence" the perpetrator of the crime left behind.

It took a couple of hours for the acting Magistrate of Colombo, Nirupama Sanasgalla, to arrive at the scene. The response of Sri Lanka's judiciary to its constitutional expert, who worked tirelessly to preserve the unity of the island, was late even on h is death.

In order to identify the killer, senior police officials requested that pictures of the severed head be displayed in newspapers prominently. A few reports that emanated hovered largely on conjecture. They stated that the person hailed from Jaffna but gav e no name; it said that he had stayed in a lodge in Colombo but mentioned no location. Not that the authorities have made any head way in the investigation of previous assassinations, including that of President R. Premadasa.

That a suicide bomber had positioned himself in the most prestigious area with such high security has proved that LTTE cadres can infiltrate "fortress Colombo" easily and strike at will despite the numerous check-points. That he had packed himself with explosives and walked around in the street in which the Prime Minister lives has serious implications for security planners.

The protection from a suicide bomber could have come only if a sterile zone had been created between the vehicle and the passers-by. But this facility is reserved for a select few. Alternatively, security guards should have formed a human shield around t he person they were supposed to protect or, in this case, around the vehicle. Why this method was not adopted in a crowded traffic intersection is a point to be addressed by the investigators.

The scene of the assassination. The rear left door of the Nissan car blew up under the impact of the explosion. The TULF leader's body was thrown to the right side of the car.-SRIYANTHA WALPOLA

There is a tendency to presume that Neelan Tiruchelvam was "rather careless" about his own personal security. Far from that, he was always aware that his life was under threat and he offered the utmost cooperation to his security personnel. He would inva riably travel only with his chief security officer and his driver. The members of his family travelled in separate cars. (On a rare occasion, when this correspondent dropped him at his home one evening, as he was to attend a TULF meeting, he was extremel y cautious. He consulted his chief security officer on the route to be taken, and unhesitatingly agreed with Farouk. Neelan Tiruchelvam valued life the most, others' as well as his.)

Neelan Tiruchelvam told Parliament on June 15: "We cannot glorify death, whether in the battlefield or otherwise. We, on the other hand, must celebrate life and we are fiercely committed to protecting and securing the sanctity of life, which is the most fundamental value without which all other rights and freedoms become meaningless."

NEWS of the assassination was received across the globe with shock and condemnation. In Sri Lanka there was a tragic sense of loss except in people who toed the line of separation. From President Chandrika Kumaratunga to the average apolitical Sri Lankan who is familiar with the dynamics of the efforts towards a resolution of the ethnic conflict, the death of Neelan Tiruchelvam meant the frittering away of the gains assiduously made during the past four years on the constitutional reforms process.

In her condolence message, Chandrika Kumaratunga said: "Dr. Tiruchelvam had won the affection and respect of not only the Tamil-speaking peoples but also all the communities in our country. He was a distinguished academic who had earned the plaudits of a broad spectrum of the international community. Knowing full well the threats and dangers to his life, he carried on an untiring and inestimable effort through many years to find a solution to the ethnic crisis that we continue to face."

On the timing of the assassination (the Government plans to introduce the draft constitutional reforms as a bill in Parliament), the President observed: "Dr. Tiruchelvam has been tragically lost to our country and society at a decisive period in our poli tical life, when his services would be most needed... The aim of the terrorists who seek to decimate such eminent and democratic intellectuals of rare quality is to establish the terrorist leadership of the LTTE as the only valid leaders of the Tamil peo ple... However, savage assassinations of this type only help underline the fact that in order to obtain the true rights and freedoms of the Tamil people, it is necessary to have more leaders of the calibre of Dr. Tiruchelvam, who have respect for the rig hts of man."

She added: "There is no doubt that history will record with much respect the services that Dr. Tiruchelvam rendered both nationally and internationally. All who are able to ascertain good and evil will treat this dastardly assassination with the contempt it deserves. Such assassinations only help to demonstrate the arid and infertile terrain of the terrorist mind... Let us pay our respects to the late Dr. Tiruchelvam and embrace the vision of ethnic harmony and peace that he was committed to and always followed, and thereby re-dedicate ourselves to solve our country's ethnic crisis in a truly peaceful manner... On this sad occasion, I extend to his wife, two children and all other members of his family, and to the Tamil United Liberation Front, my hear tfelt condolences, and the condolences of our party, our Government and of all those who value democracy, human decency and peace in this country."

In his tribute, Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar said that the slain leader was "the epitome of rational thought and attitudes in his approach to the difficult problems that beset our society. Not for him the abrasive language of confrontation, never for him the cheap jibe and cruel jest of acrimonious debate. One can scour the records of his public speeches and one will not find a single offensive personal remark that would hurt an opponent or denigrate a cause or a philosophy which he did not hims elf espouse. He never once by word, deed, hint or innuendo advocate or endorse violence."

Reflecting on Neelan Tiruchelvam's wide range of intellectual and societal interests, Kadirgamar said: "He saw decades ago that the time would come when the problems of our multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-religious, society would overwhelm us if we d id not, in a timely fashion, which indeed we did not, address them effectively. He was mature, learned, well-balanced and well-acquainted with international experience of the resolution of conflictual situation in non-homogeneous societies when the avala nche of ethnic turmoil engulfed our country."

Recalling the significant roles Neelan Tiruchelvam played during the period of successive governments, he said: "He was always pragmatic, realistic and constructive in proposing possible solutions to complex problems. He was by no means a mere social dre amer or abstract philosopher."

The Indian Government described the killing as an "act of wanton terrorism". If the Government of India's reaction was more than categorical, the Indian media came out strongly in leading the international protest against the LTTE's act and intention. Th e reaction from the United States was led by President Bill Clinton. Expressing "shock and sadness" over the "tragic death" of Neelan Tiruchelvam, he said that "a powerful voice for reconciliation in Sri Lanka has been silenced."

Neelan Tiruchelvam with Indian High Commissioner Shivshankar Menon and author Arundhati Roy at India House in Colombo.-N. RAM

TAMIL political leaders were shaken by the death of the liberal democrat. Tamil politicians cutting across party affiliations and former militant leaders joined in the mourning. The large diplomatic corps stationed in Colombo, sections of the Buddhist cl ergy, intellectuals, colleagues and admirers of Neelan Tiruchelvam turned out in large numbers for the funeral on July 31. Rosemead Place was full of streamers, white mourning flags and black-lettered banners. The casket bearing the remains of one of Ros emead Place's most famous residents was bedecked with flags of TULF and his alma mater, Royal College, Colombo.

R. Sampanthan, TULF secretary-general, Joseph Pararajasingham, leader of the TULF parliamentary group, and N. Raviraj, acting Mayor of Jaffna, were among those who took turns as pall-bearers as the funeral procession wound its way to the Borella Cemetery . Cabinet Ministers, diplomats and Tamil political leaders were part of the cortege.

At the cemetery, orators, including the Left-oriented Buddhist leader, Ven. Samitha Thero, and Sampanthan, recalled the services rendered by Neelan Tiruchelvam for a peaceful resolution of the ethnic conflict. Ven. Thero described Neelan Tiruchelvam as a peace-maker. He said: "The flag of peace has fallen from the hands of Tiruchelvam, but we would carry it forward... Peace is a costly commodity."

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