The death by shooting of national squash champion and SCC coach Kavinda Cooray at the hands of a friend of a sub inspector of police, brought back memories of one day in 1977 when I was duty field officer (major) at Army HQ.
The quarter guard was from my old regiment, the Sinha (SR) which had been moved from the rolling hills of Diyatalawa to Echelon Square in Colombo, where the Fort Police and the WTC building are now. I knew many of the men and spent some time chatting with the off guard men, recalling the route marches, the field and battle fitness training, annual weapon classifications on the ranges at the crack of dawn in the early morning chill, the games with the men and the day I introduced the regiment to the double march to the music of ‘Orpheus in the Underworld’ instead of the regimental quick march Lutzovs Wild Hunt. I reminded them that the previous time I was on duty, one member of the guard had shot himself and I did not want a repeat of that!
I well remembered the look of the Malay corporal Kitchlin who had come running to the duty room soon after a gun shot had woken me at about 3 am breathlessly saying "Sir, guard shot" and I thinking that the sentry had opened fire on a civilian outside the perimeter, rushed out cursing. I saw a body very close to the duty room. A rifleman was on the ground with what appeared to be a wound under his jaw and his rifle beside him. There were several soldiers standing around but not one would touch the man on the ground, probably fearing that the police who none of them trusted would suspect them of killing him.
I did my best to read the pulse of the man who was obviously dead. I told the onlookers (that’s what they were even though soldiers, as in those days few men died in the army even of natural causes as we were a young army with no one shooting at us) the facts. I then rang the Military police, the civil police and the Sinha Regiment duty officer. By the time they came the guard commander who had picked up some information had gone to the Commcen and asked the duty man there to open the mail bag and pulled out a letter purportedly written by the dead soldier to his girl friend bidding her adieu as she had let him down for another.
The police came and having observed the scene made arrangements to take over the body. At day break I rang the Director Plans, Colonel Denis Perera (later army commander), and informed him of the tragedy. He was a bit upset that I had waited until then to call him. I told him that there was no point in waking him up at 3 am to tell him something about which he could or needed to do nothing as I had attended to whatever was needed. Thankfully he agreed.
I settled down to reading the various military magazines, periodicals etc which was the best way to kill time on duty after dinner. At about 9 pm the phone rang. The Mt. Lavinia Police informed me that a soldier in uniform had come to a house close to the Police station bearing his rifle and confronted a sub inspector of police who was chatting up a girl in the house. An argument had ensued and it had ended with the soldier being confronted by the policeman with a pistol and surrounded by some others. The soldier dropped his weapon and fled, leaving his beret on the ground too.
I asked for the weapon number and identification of the cap badge which was described as a black gun metal lion badge. I rang the duty officer at the Sinha Regiment and told him about the incident and asked him to go down to the Mt Lavinia police station and identify the rifle and the beret. A little while later he rang back to say that the weapon belonged to a rifleman on the AHQ Quarter Guard. I sent for the sergeant guard commander and asked him to check on the sentries. He came back quickly and confirmed what I feared.
The man Rifleman (rfn) Cooray had been on duty near the watch tower over looking the Galle Face Green and was missing. It later transpired that as soon as he had taken over his duties from the previous sentry, he had crawled under the perimeter wire fence, taken a taxi and gone to Mount Lavinia to challenge the police sub inspector.
I contacted SSP Vamadevan who I had met with Maj SJ Weerasena, my colleague in the Engineer Group under Col Nalin Seneviratne and helped and got to know well during the 1977 communal riots, the percurser to 1983. Like most senior police officers he was a graduate, soft spoken, a master of PR and human behaviour which we later had ample time to study in depth during the riots. We discussed the matter and I understood that the version of the police was correct.
I then asked him what he thought Cooray would do now as he had threatened the sub inspector with a loaded rifle. Mr. Vamadevan said "he’ll commit suicide". I bid him good night, read a Defence Digest and fell asleep. At about 3am the phone rang. The caller identified himself as SSP Vamadevan. I asked whether Cooray had been found. He confirmed and said his body was found by the railway line.
Some years later after I had left the army I met in Cooray’s brother, a sergeant (sgt) and good cricketer serving in the First Field Engineer Regiment . He spoke to me for some time and said that his brother had been murdered by the police. I told him I did not think so but recalled what the SSP Vamadevan had said and a fleeting doubt quickly crossed my mind. I hoped that Sgt Cooray was wrong.