It is not often that a person not amongst us hits the headlines but that is what happened last week when the twentieth death anniversary of assassinated former Trade and National Security Minister Lalith Athulathmudali was commemorated on Tuesday.
Athulathmudali was one of the rising stars of the J. R. Jayewardene administration that came into power in 1997 and was soon hailed as a potential national leader. His untimely-and controversi al death robbed the country of a politician of great skill.
Lalith William Samarasekera Athulathmudali, born in 1936, hailed from a family with political inclinations in Matugama in the Kalutara district. His father, Don Daniel Athulathmudali was a member of the State Council for Matugama. Young Lalith however was destined for greater heights.
Athulathmudali schooled first at St. Johns’ College, Panadura and then at Royal College, Colombo. At the latter, he distinguished himself as a brilliant orator and scholar. From there, it was but a short step to Jesus College at Oxford University in Britain where he became President of the Oxford Union.
He became a barrister at Grays Inn and also gained a degree in law from the Harvard University. He was much sought after as a lecturer in law before he took to politics and taught in universities in Singapore, India, Israel and Scotland in addition to teaching at Colombo’s Law College.
Jayewardene, looking for young blood to represent the United National Party (UNP) at the 1977 elections initially appointed him as electoral organiser for Agalawatte but was later requested by the party leader to contest the Ratmalana electorate.
Athulathmudali won the electorate comfortably defeating the Sri Lanka Freedom Party candidate, C.V. Gooneratne who, ironically was also assassinated by terrorists years later. Athulathmudali was appointed as Minister of Trade in Jayewardene’s cabinet. Later, Shipping was added to his portfolio.
His abilities soon singled him out as one of the more capable members of Jayewardene’s team. He masterminded the modernisation of the Colombo Port. As Minister of Trade he successfully supervised food distribution during the dark days of the 1983 ethnic riots.
As the then government’s war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) took a turn for the worse, Athulathmudali was appointed Minister of National Security and asked to spearhead the war effort. In this task, he was seen as a hawk pushing for a military solution against the LTTE.
As Minister of National Security, Athulathmudali had his share of skirmishes and close calls. The closest of them was the grenade attack in Parliament on August 18, 1987, a few weeks after the Indo-Lanka accord was signed.
The attack was engineered by a member of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). Athulathmudali was seriously injured in the attack but emergency surgery at the nearby Sri Jayewardenepura General Hospital saved his life.
Athulathmudali was to come into strife because of the JVP yet again. On May 10, 1988 he announced a ‘truce’ with the JVP. The man brokering the truce was a 23-year-old lawyer, Kelly Senanayake, who claimed to represent the JVP.
A triumphant Athulathmudali held a media conference to announce the peace deal but it later transpired that it was a hoax and that Senanayake had no mandate to act on behalf of the JVP. The incident caused much embarrassment to Athulathmudali. However he remained in the limelight and carved a niche for himself as a visionary of sorts mainly through the Mahapola scholarship scheme he pioneered. To this day, this remains arguably his most enduring legacy to the country and the scheme has benefited hundreds of thousands of students.
As Ranasinghe Premadasa took over the Presidency in 1989, Athulathmudali found himself marginalised. He was demoted as Minister of Agriculture and also briefly held the Education portfolio. Deprived of his high profile status, Athulathmudali teamed up with Gamini Dissanayake.
The dynamic duo that at one time represented the next generation of the UNP, and were at one time bitter rivals themselves, decided to take on President Premadasa. This they tried to do by trying to impeach the President in September 1991.
The impeachment failed, mostly because of the ambivalence of the then Speaker M.H. Mohamed. It also meant that both Athulathmudali and Dissanayake could no longer survive in the UNP. They broke away and formed the Democratic United National Front (DUNF), with the eagle as its symbol.
The first task was to contest the provincial council elections and Athulathmudali campaigned to become the Chief Minister for the Western Province. It was during this campaign that he was gunned down by an assassin at Kirulapone. The assassin himself was found murdered the next day.
It is a tribute to Athulathmudali’s popularity that despite his death, he polled the highest number of preferences at the election. His funeral drew massive crowds to Colombo and ended in unruly scenes when mourners were tear-gassed by the Police who feared an uprising against President Premadasa. Athulathmudali’s assassination itself is shrouded in controversy. Public sentiment suggested that Premadasa was responsible. Incensed, Premadasa summoned Scotland Yard to conduct an independent inquiry but the President himself was killed by a suicide bomber eight days later.
Forensic investigations suggest that Athulathmudali was indeed killed by a LTTE cadre. However, the government of Chandrika Kumaratunga appointed a Special Presidential Commission to probe the killing and came to somewhat different conclusions. The matter is still the subject of speculation. After Athulathmudali’s death and the assassination of Premadasa, Dissanayake returned to the UNP. By then, Athulathmudali’s widow, Srimani had joined Kumaratunga’s campaign. Unfortunately for the UNP, Dissanayake was also killed during the 1994 presidential election campaign.
Srimani Athulathmudali went on to serve as a minister in the Kumaratunga government but also passed away after an illness. Their only child, Serela Athulathmudali has shunned the limelight and steered clear of politics.
Lalith Athulathmudali was a man who strode the political arena like a colossus. His untimely death robbed the country of a great statesman. Nevertheless, his memory lives on not only because of the ingenious Mahapola scheme he devised but also because charismatic leaders like him rarely come by.
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