SPECIAL REPORT : Part 46October 21, 2014, 4:41 pm
by Shamindra Ferdinando
The assassination of UNP presidential candidate, Gamini Dissanayake, on the night of October 23, 1994, plunged, both the UNP and the SLFP-led People’s Alliance into unprecedented crisis.
Nearly 60 men and women died in the blast caused by an LTTE woman suicide cadre, at a UNP campaign rally, at Thotalanga, in the Kotahena police area.
The LTTE timed the blast to cause chaos in the country, in the wake of the PA forming a new government, under the leadership of newly elected Premier, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga. Having won the August 16, 1994, parliamentary poll, the PA needed to win the presidential election to consolidate its position. The UNP had to somehow retain the presidency to exploit the constitutional provisions to go for an early general election.
Dissanayake’s assassination threatened to undermine both major parties. It was a diabolical project of the LTTE, meant to cause political uncertainty.
Within hours after the Thotalanga massacre, the then Elections Commissioner, Chandrananda de Silva, requested the UNP to name a substitute for the slain candidate, by October 27 (1994). Dissanayake’s widow, Srima, as well as former First Lady, Hema Premadasa, were proposed as possible substitute, while many felt that one-time premier, Ranil Wickremesinghe shouldn’t be deprived of the opportunity to join the presidential fray. They reminded that Wickremesinghe should have been the presidential candidate, though the decision - making Working Committee of the party favoured Dissanayake. The simmering issue of substitute sharply divided the party (Srima’s surprise nomination: Shock-waves through UNP-The Island, October 27, 1994). In spite of this grave injustice, Wickremesinghe acted sensibly in a bid to avoid a further controversy in the run-up to the presidential poll. Those supporting Srima’s candidature harassed Wickremesinghe. A case in point was a violent protest organized outside Sirikotha on the late afternoon of November 1, 1994, to discourage Wickremesinghe from attending a crucial Working Committee meeting. Protests shouted Apita Srima madam ona (We want Madam Srima). Some of the protesters surrounded Wickremesinghe’s vehicle and acted in a threatening manner. The meeting was to be chaired by President Wijetunga. The then Wickremesinghe’s chief security officer, SP Dharmasiri Lawrence Vithana, lodged a complaint with the Mirihana police on the following day (Ranil threatened outside Siri Kotha, pro-Srima slogans shouted’ (The Island, November, 1994).
Soon after Srima received presidential nomination, she requested President Wijetunga to accommodate Hema on the National List. Srima expressed the opinion that Hema could fill one of the vacancies caused by the assassination of National List members - UNP General Secretary, Dr. Gamini Wijesekara, and G. M. Premachandran. They were among over 50 persons who perished along with Dissanayake on the night of October 23, 1994. President Wijetunga ignored Srima’s plea. It would be pertinent to recollect an attempt to swear in Hema as the president, before the Chief Justice immediately after the May Day 1993 assassination of President Ranasinghe Premadasa. But an influential section acted swiftly and decisively to pave the way for the then premier Wijetunga to succeed Premadasa and the Leader of the House, Wickremesinghe, to assume premiership.
Premadasa’s assassination caused turmoil in the party. The worst affected was the UNP power base, Colombo. Hema resented post-Premadasa changes. In the run-up to the parliamentary poll on August 16, 1994, Hema locked horns with those she felt were responsible for depriving her of an opportunity to enter active politics. The former First Lady ordered the cancellation of a meeting scheduled to take place at Sucharitha to discuss the campaign in the UNP stronghold, Colombo electorate. She reacted angrily to the then Colombo Central Organizer calling for Sucharitha meeting (UNP meeting to discuss campaign in Colombo Central cancelled-The Island, July 11, 1994). In spite of the crisis in Colombo Central, Wickremesinghe earned the support of the vast majority of UNPers in the Colombo electoral district.
The dispute led to the exit of Hema from the Colombo District. Hema found her name removed from the nomination list when she arrived at the Colombo kachcheri to hand over nominations. The then The Island staff photographer, Sri Lal Gomes, captured Hema bitterly complaining to Wickremesinghe. Seated next to Wickremesinghe was one-time Speaker, Stanley Tillekaratne. She queried the circumstances under which she was replaced with suspended Colombo Mayor, Ratnasiri Rajapaksa. Hema signed the nomination papers on Friday though she initially indicted she wasn’t keen to join the fray (UNP ditches Mrs. Premadasa-The Island, July 1994).
Despite trouble at Colombo Central, the UNP comfortably won the electorate with a majority of 8,076 at the August 16, 1994, parliamentary election. The vote reflected the confidence that the multi-ethnic electorate had in Wickremesinghe and its chief organiser, B. Sirisena Cooray. But the situation deteriorated over the next few months due to disputes among key players. The PA took advantage of the situation at the Colombo Central electorate to inflict a devastating blow on the UNP at the November 9, 1994, presidential election, just three months after losing the same to the UNP. Under Kumaratunga’s leadership, the PA secured the electorate with an overwhelming majority of 22,395 votes. Hema had been the Colombo Central organiser, successfully led by the late Premadasa, followed by Cooray and Wickremesinghe. In fact, Wickremesinghe had been in charge of the electorate at the August 16, 1994, parliamentary poll, though Hema stepped in between the August and November 1994 national level polls. In addition to the defeat, the UNP which polled 50, 136 at the August poll, obtained 33,824 in November, a sharp drop within a three-month period. The result at Colombo Central reflected the general mood in the country as Kumaratunga scored a stunning victory over Srima at the presidential election. The PA candidate polled a record 62.28 per cent of the vote and it remained the best performance by any candidate since the first presidential, on October, 1982. JRJ obtained 52.91, whereas the second best performance was recorded by incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa, at the last presidential, when he secured 57.88 per cent of the vote.
The UNP’s defeat at the November 9, 1994, presidential poll permanently dashed Hema’s hopes of an active political career. Srima didn’t even bother to attend a meeting at the Election Secretariat to announce the final result.
CBK in quandary
After having led the PA to resounding victories at both parliamentary and presidential polls, in August and November, 1994, President Kumaratunga faced unenviable task in resuming the peace initiative. In the backdrop of Dissanayake’s assassination, some accused the PA of conspiring with the LTTE to eliminate the UNP candidate. Although nothing could have been further from the truth, some went to the extent in putting up posters, accusing Kumaratunga of teaming up with the LTTE. In spite of Kumaratunga calling off the second round of talks, scheduled for October 24, 1994, in the wake of Dissanayake’s assassination, the country knew of the PA-LTTE deliberations which commenced in the run-up to the parliamentary election in August, 1994. A desperate bid by the PA to secure the LTTE’s endorsement, in the run-up to the parliamentary poll didn’t materialize. But the PA remained supremely confident of securing the LTTE’s approval before the presidential poll. The PA’s confidence grew in the wake of the first round of talks, held in Jaffna on October, 13-14, 1994. Kumaratunga received a massive boost by way of an agreement on the second round of talks, on October 24, 1994, two weeks before the presidential. The LTTE wouldn’t have ordered Dissanayake’s assassination had it felt Kumaratunga could win. Although the LTTE never endorsed Kumaratunga’s candidature publicly, the assassination sent a strong message to the Tamil speaking people, not only in the then temporarily-merged Northern and Eastern Province, that Prabhakaran preferred a PA victory. Kumaratunga would never have received 62.88 per cent of the vote, if a substantial number of Tamils did not exercise their franchise in support of the PA candidate.
The LTTE facilitated Kumaratunga’s efforts by declaring a week-long unilateral truce with effect from November 12, 1994, to coincide with the newly elected president taking oaths. The PA reciprocated by proposing a two-week long cessation of hostilities. The proposal was made on November 19, 1994. The following day, the LTTE demanded an explanation from the government regarding the circumstances under which the army killed a senior LTTE cadre, holding the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, during the unilateral ceasefire declared by the group. The PA promptly assured the LTTE of initiating a Court of Inquiry process into the killing which occurred in the Kokkuthuduwai area. Regardless of the LTTE’s unilateral ceasefire, the army conducted routine operations in the NE Province.
The PA leadership didn’t, at least bother to raise Dissanayake’s assassination with the LTTE, though it was ready to inquire into the conduct of the army. The PA ignored concerns expressed by the Dissanayake family, as well as the UNP, over failure on the part of the government to conduct a proper investigation. In fact, on the day before the PA delivered the letter (November 19, 1994), The Island dealt with Srima and President’s Counsel, Daya Perera taking up the issue. Having expressed concern over the status of the local investigation, Srima called for Indian experts to join in the inquiry. Both Srima and the UNP firmly believed that New Delhi couldn’t turn a blind eye to what was happening in the wake of Dissanayake’s assassination. Perera lambasted the government for not taking tangible action to bring down Indian experts. Perera was representing the interests of the Dissanayakes (India unlikely to send experts for probe-The Island-November 18, 1994).
Having exchanged many letters, commencing the second week of November and December (1994), government and LTTE delegations met in Jaffna on the morning of January 2, 1995. The second round of talks effectively brought an end to the investigation. Kumaratunga upgraded her negotiating team by including two military personnel, Brigadier Siri Peiris and Captain Prasanna Rajaratne. The PA never realized the diabolical nature of the LTTE. The PA interpreted its victory at the parliamentary poll in August and the presidential in November, 1994 as double mandate for peace. Those surrounding Kumaratunga voiced that the government should go ahead with the peace process whatever the shortcomings and risks. PA members didn’t dare to caution Kumaratunga whose criticism of the military leadership received heavy media coverage. Former Air Force Commander, Harry Goonetilleke, was one of the few persons bold enough to caution Kumaratunga publicly. India Today in its November 30, 1994 edition quoted Gonnetilleke as having said: "I hope President Kumaratunga does not misread the presidential election result as a mandate from the Sinhalese people to talk peace with the LTTE at any cost. But there appeared to be no doubt that the overwhelming support she received from all communities reflected the desire of the majority of the people for an end to the war and restoration of peace."
The LTTE mounted several major attacks on the navy, between the parliamentary and presidential polls, in August and November, 1994, though it was engaged in negotiations with the government. Regardless of the embarrassment it had caused to the government, the LTTE wanted to resume negotiations from a position of strength. The easiest way to achieve supremacy, at the negotiating table, was to cause significant losses to the military. On the night of September 19, 1994, suicide cadres blasted SLNS Sagarawardene off Mannar. On October 9, 1994, less than a week before the first round of peace talks between the PA and the LTTE in Jaffna, the LTTE sank the Merchant Vessel Ocean Trader carrying supplies to the North. The LTTE mounted major attacks on the eve of parliamentary and presidential polls. In the early hours of August 16, 1994, the LTTE sank two vessels - a navy surveillance command ship and a tug belonging to Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA). The LTTE made an abortive bid to blow up an SLN landing craft at Vettilaikerni, east of Elephant Pass, on the eve of the presidential poll (Navy blasts LTTE boats carrying suicide bombers-The Island, November 9, 1994).
Kumaratunga gave the go ahead with the signing of a formal declaration of cessation of hostilities. President Kumaratunga and LTTE leader Prabhakaran signed the agreement on behalf of the GoSL and the LTTE, respectively on January 5, 1995. They finalized the agreement within just three days after the conclusion of the second round of talks. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) functioned as an intermediary to facilitate the project. The cessation of hostilities was to come into operation on January 8, 1995.