Kadirgamar inspecting a guard of honour

LTTE's Sudahar Master raises their flag at the formation of the civilian militia on August 11.

How his quiet diplomacy saved Jaffna
It was a hot and humid afternoon one day in April 2000. The Sri Lanka High Commission in India, located in New Delhi's Chanakyapuri diplomatic enclave, was ringed by Police and Jawans from the Army. They had pitched tents at regular intervals to form a tight security cordon.

In an apartment inside, Sri Lanka's Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar was recuperating. He had just ended a complicated kidney transplant operation at the Apollo Hospital in New Delhi. His wife Suganthie was by his side.

Just a day before I walked in to meet him, High Commissioner Mangala Moonasinghe had hosted a party to mark the Minister's 68th birthday. That was an unusual birthday party. It was lawyers who usually dominated that annual event in Sri Lanka. But this time, in New Delhi, there was a larger turn out of doctors. "You should have been here last night," Mr Kadirgamar remarked as we engaged in a lengthy conversation about the security situation in Sri Lanka.

He wore a white mask to cover his mouth and sat at a distance as he spoke. Doctors had warned him to be careful not to allow any infection to set in for that would turn fatal. But his delicate medical condition did not deter him from responding to a call of duty for the nation.

Only a few days later, what we talked with each other was to become alive. Tiger guerrillas in Sri Lanka had launched "Oyatha Alaikal" (or Unceasing Waves). That was the offensive to evict the security forces from the vast swathe of land they were controlling in the Wanni and their planned push to seize control of the Jaffna peninsula.

I was back in Colombo to cover the war and he was still in New Delhi recuperating. We kept regular telephone contact, speaking sometimes six to seven times a day. He was keen to know developments in the battlefronts of the north. I was keen to know how the Government was going to cope with the guerrilla onslaught and avert a possible fall of the Jaffna peninsula. There were fears that 40,000 troops would be under siege.

The days and nights that followed were history in the making. President Kumaratunga was away in London. Hence the tasks of mustering foreign help fell on Mr Kadirgamar. He was in touch with her as well as then Deputy Defence Minister Anuruddha Ratwatte in Colombo. Then he was formulating his own action plan to avert a serious crisis.

I briefed him periodically on the progress of the fighting. He first met with New Delhi based ambassadors of some important countries including the United States and United Kingdom to brief them on developments.
As the fighting intensified, fears grew of a siege of the Jaffna peninsula by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). There were only two choices left - fight it out to a finish, or make a tactical withdrawal. The latter option meant the surrender of the Jaffna peninsula to the guerrillas. To fight, defence supplies were woefully inadequate. Making a tactical withdrawal involved a logistics nightmare.

The Jaffna peninsula was separated from the south by guerrilla controlled Wanni. That meant only a coastal evacuation was possible, for which resources to move 40,000 troops, was not available.

The situation was quite desperate. This is when Mr. Kadirgamar held talks with Indian authorities at the highest level. India ruled out any form of military intervention. The memories of the ignominious withdrawal of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) following their bloodied nose during the 1987-90 stay in North and East Sri Lanka, were very much alive. But a well kept secret then was India's willingness to offer humanitarian assistance if it became necessary. This was in the form of ships to evacuate troops should the situation deteriorate to a point that India equally did not want to see Jaffna fall back into LTTE hands.

New Delhi had also taken note of the serious concerns expressed by Mr. Kadirgamar if Jaffna was to fall into guerrilla hands. Here again, there was another well kept secret. Indian authorities had made known to the LTTE, through their own channels, the serious consequences that would follow if they were to seize Jaffna peninsula. The warning had paid off. The guerrillas captured Elephant Pass, and reached Navatkuli, the gateway to Jaffna, but made no foray into the peninsula. His silent diplomacy had paid off.

Lakshman Kadirgamar, the man for whom the deep commitment to the defence of his motherland was as important as the portfolio of foreign affairs, is no more. He fell victim to an assassin's bullet on Friday night.
"Life for me has changed forever since I became Foreign Minister," he once remarked to me. "I cannot stand in my own balcony or take a walk outside my house anymore," he lamented. His belief in a united Sri Lanka had made him a prime target for the LTTE. If President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga was the main one, he was second. But in the past months and weeks, intelligence reports made clear, he was not second but first on the list. That was why he had a large security contingent of crack Army commandos and a handful of Ministerial Security Division (MSD) personnel to protect him.

But life under close protection from alert security personnel had not always been smooth for him. There had been many an occasion when Tiger guerrillas had laid traps to assassinate him. The list is too long but he survived all of them. One, he told me, was a plot to run a high voltage electricity wire through a heated swimming pool which he was to use during a visit to India. The warning came on time from an important intelligence channel and he did not swim that day.

Just last week there was a warning from the Army's Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI) that threats against him had heightened. So much so, he chose to cut down on travel. One day he chose not to attend Parliament. A former Cabinet Minister was waiting for his arrival to have a document signed. Mr. Kadirgamar phoned him and asked that it be sent home. He said his threat level had increased. A senior Defence official even asked him to be away from Sri Lanka for a month.

Swimming was a passion for him. It also helped keep him fit for the grueling schedule he would fit into each day. Soon after he spent all his savings to purchase company magnate Mark Bostock's house at Bullers Lane in residential Colombo, he made sure there was a small pool. He had one built and found time to use it. If pressure of work forced him to miss swimming, he was sure to make up for it on another day. He felt tired and unfit without that regime.

This is what he did on Friday after attending a book launch. But his assassins had other plans. They had spent time mounting surveillance on his movements for days and weeks. They lay in wait. At least two guerrillas had taken up position on the top floor of a neighboring house owned by a Tamil national.

The view from the window that faced Mr. Kadirgamar's swimming pool had been obstructed by a tree. Hence, it had been cut down. The window had been covered with cardboard leaving room for a Chinese-built sniper's rifle to be pointed in the direction of the pool.

On Friday night Mr. Kadirgamar had finished his swim and was returning to change clothes when the assassins struck. They had fired shots to his head, chest and leg. He was rushed to the Accident Service of the National Hospital shortly past 11 p.m. Doctors carried out emergency surgery but he was pronounced dead around 12.15 a.m.

It is no secret that Mr. Kadirgamar was the power behind the LTTE being banned in a number of countries. This single act crippled the LTTE especially its fund raising exercises. They were slighted that while calling themselves "freedom fighters," world governments were labeling them as a "terrorist organization." That he earned the wrath of the LTTE for this and his repeated condemnation of their violence is public knowledge. Yet, the LTTE denied it carried out his assassination.

The Tamilnet website quoted Political Wing leader S.P, Thamilselvan as condemning the Government for "hastily blaming the Liberation Tigers for the killing." He said that there were several forces opposed to the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) in the South. "We also know that there are sections within the Sri Lankan Armed forces operating with a hidden agenda to sabotage the CFA," Mr. Thamilselvan said.

He added that "Colombo, ridden with internal rifts and power struggles, should look inwards for culprits of the assassination. He added that there is a growing trend in the South to blame the Liberation Tigers for all killings." But Military Spokesman Brigadier Daya Ratnayake declared, "there seems no doubt there is LTTE involvement."

He said the assassination has "all the hallmarks of a rebel assassination plot." He said early this month two persons were arrested outside Mr. Kadirgamar's official residence at Wijerama Mawatha. "They were filming and taking photographs of his residence. We questioned them and have confirmed that they are members of the LTTE," he said.

Is there a coincidence between the guerrilla assassination of Mr. Kadirgamar and their continued preparations for war? Last week, even elderly civilians were being put through a programme of training and preparation to be deployed during a war situation. The two pictures on this page taken on August 11 at the Palai playground tell the story.

Whilst Mr. Kadirgamar's funeral will take place tomorrow with full state honours, Security Forces and Police continued their overnight search for rebel suspects and hideouts in the capital. This is with new powers vested with them under a State of Emergency declared early yesterday.
One is reminded of a question raised before President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga by Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekera, Deputy Chief of staff of the Navy. This was when she addressed a 1,000 Security Forces and Police officers at the Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall (BMICH) on July 26.

Observing that there had been more than 400 killings by Tiger guerrillas, forty of them from the armed forces, Rear Admiral Weerasekera wanted to know whether the Prevention of Terrorism Act or Emergency Regulations could not be enforced. This was because of morale problems caused by troops being told to escort guerrilla cadres whilst their colleagues were being killed.

President Kumaratunga had a brief exchange of words with Deputy Defence Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake. She then declared that it was difficult to enforce such laws. (The Sunday Times - Situation Report July 31.) She said without a war it was only 40 personnel who were killed. Had there been a war the numbers would have been much higher. "We must try to change the Ceasefire Agreement," she declared. But the LTTE has rejected that proposal altogether.

And now, President Kumaratunga has enforced what she said was difficult to do just three weeks ago - the promulgation of a State of Emergency. Very sadly Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar had to lay down his life for that to happen. This is not exaggerated gossip but the stark truth. Little wonder truth hurts.

Back to Top
 Back to Columns  

Copyright © 2001 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd. All rights reserved.