A Search for Truth in Muddied Waters

"Lalith Athulathmudali Assassination" - Professor Ravindra Fernando [Vijitha Yapa 2017]



by Tissa Devendra

Professor Ravindra Fernando has carved a niche for himself as the foremost medico-legal writer on sensational murder cases in Sri Lanka. His writings on the Wijedasa Liyanarachchi killing, the unsolved Sathasivam Case and the sensational Murders at the Vicarage have enthralled the reader with their fascinating mix of social history,character studies, forensic expertise and legal authority. In his latest book he boldly wades into the murky waters of a sensational political assassination that stunned Sri Lanka in that year of tragedies 1993. Shakespeare would have crafted a great tragedy of this assassination that took place on the Bard's birthday 23rd April. On this day Lalith Athulathmudali [LA], a rising star in our political firmament, was shot dead in cold blood. This tragic event yet reverberates in the nation's memory giving rise to many theories as to who, how and why this assassination took place. Although President Kennedy's assassination took place over half a century ago, and the Warner Commission pronounced its findings, there has been no end to the wild theories regarding this event. This is, perhaps, inevitable - as in the case of L.A - when a famous political leader is killed. Professor Fernando[RF] has now produced a meticulously researched study into the shooting, the Police investigations and the subsequent judicial proceedings.

The author begins with an outline of Lalith's brilliant academic and political career but he tip-toes diplomatically about the bitter political rivalry that wanted to eliminate him from the political stage. His account of the shooting brings into play a strange and disturbing cast of characters. Among these are the mystery officials who switched off all the street lights before the fateful meeting, Tilak Shanta LA's bodyguard of dubious antecedents,the volunteer witness Wijegunawardena who went for meetings because he liked to see politicians , Janaka Jayamanne an underworld suspect, the unidentified body at Mugalan Road, Lingeswaran the alleged killer's LTTE 'minder', the Police officers who ,strangely, never saw the body at Mugalan Road.

The Police investigation is presented in detail as well as the deliberately confusing statements made by key witnesses and the disappearance of vital items. By this stage President Premadasa, who had his ear to the ground, had become aware that fingers were pointed at him as the perpetrator, and beneficiary, of the assassination. With characteristic shrewdness he decided to deflect these suspicions by requesting the British Government to support the Police investigation with a team from Scotland Yard. He was confident that their objective investigation would absolve him of complicity.

The Scotland Yard Police Officers and medical experts inspected the scene of the crime and the bodies of LA and the "Mugalan Rd Man" . Their report, though meticulous is , inevitably, devoid of the human motivations behind the crime . The record of our Police investigation, though evidently "correct", seems riddled with gaps and inconsistencies, One can hardly believe that their search of the crime scene did not notice the dead body sprawled by the blood spattered wall of the Mugalan Road Co-op . Nor the inexplicable disappearance of Lalith's bodyguard , noted for fictional statements,from hospital custody. Meanwhile, a shady character, Lingeswaran, was arrested on suspicion he was involved in the murder. Strangely, he remained in custody till 2002 when he was released to the LTTE , at their request, during the abortive Cease Fire.Yet another mystery.

President Premadasa was assassinated a week after L.A. After the brief Presidency of D, B.Wijetunga and the assassination of LA's colleague and rival Gamini Dissanayaka the next Presidential Election brought into power Chandrika Bandaranike Kumaratunga [CBK]. Her husband Vijaya , the film star politician,was also assassinated during that "annus horribilis" .There was no love lost between CBK and the remnants of the Premadasa 'gang'. She was , probably genuinely , convinced that Premadasa master minded LA's killing. She then appointed a Special Presidential Commission of Inquiry [SPC] into LA's assassination "whereas numerous allegations have been made that the investigation...was not conducted in a proper and impartial manner"

The proceedings of this SPC, headed by retired Judges, makes depressing reading. It is fairly obvious they strained hard to link the late President, via his minions, with the killing. Their vain attempt to implicate Sirisena Cooray, Premadasa's trusted right hand man, is sheer black comedy. The blind determination of the SPC to "fulfil its contract" [to put it crudely]can be seen in their summing up . "The Commission is of the view that President Premadasa himself was directly involved in the conspiracy to assassinate Athulathmudali and that others did his bidding."

In the course of its proceedings the SPC also proceeded to accuse eight Police Officers of being involved in the killing. This was so bad in law that the Supreme Court quashed these "findings" and exonerated these upright officers whose careers had been in jeopardy.

The author's conclusion is that it is crystal clear that Lalith was shot dead by the man whose body was found in Mugalan Road. But that, I am afraid, is not the "whole truth". I firmly believe what Eric Ambler, master of espionage fiction, said about an assassination in his masterpiece The Mask of Dimitrios "it is not the finger on the trigger that kills but he who pays for the bullet"As such. The author's sub-title The Whole Truth should ,therefore, end not with a full stop, but with a question mark.

An immensely gripping narrative and a window into a dark period of Sri Lanka's recent political history.

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