The cruelly tragic killing of five Tamil students by members of the security forces thirteen years ago in the Trincomalee town was revisited in these columns last week. This week’s column seeks to revive memories about a murder most foul perpetrated by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in Colombo exactly thirty years ago. It was on the fateful day of July 13, 1989 that foremost Sri Lankan Tamil political leader and former opposition leader Appapillai Amirthalingam along with ex-Jaffna MP Vettivelu Yogeswaran was gunned down by the LTTE. Ex-Nallur MP Murugesu Sivasithamparam was shot and wounded in the same incident. All three Tiger assassins involved were shot dead by police officers in the ensuing gun battle. I have written extensively about the assassination of Appapillai Amirthalingam on earlier occasions. However, I intend re-relating some of the details concerning these killings on the 30th anniversary of the murders relying to a great extent upon my earlier writings.
Hailing from Pannaaham in Jaffna, Appapillai Amirthalingam was born on August 26, 1927. He was a charismatic and dynamic politician who served for many years as the chief lieutenant of the respected Tamil leader S.J.V. Chelvanayagam known as the Gandhi of Eelam. Amirthalingam was a lawyer by profession and had been the Illankai Thamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK) MP for Vaddukoddai from 1956 to 1970 and the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) MP for Kankesanthurai from 1977 to 1983. He held office as opposition leader from 1977 to 1983. In 1989, he was appointed MP on the TULF National List.
It was only after Amirthalingam’s death that LTTE minions started describing Prabhakaran as “Thesiyath Thalaiver” or national leader. Amirthalingam himself was fully aware of the danger awaiting him in Sri Lanka
Some background details about the political situation prevailing at that time are necessary to understand the context in which the assassination of Amirthalingam took place. The Indo-Lanka Accord inked on July 29, 1987 by former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Sri Lankan President Junius Richard Jayewardene had resulted in the induction of the Indian army into the North and East of Sri Lanka as peacekeepers. War had erupted between the Indian army designated as the Indian Peacekeeping Force (IPKF) and the LTTE.
According to military analysts, the hard-pressed Tigers were reportedly “gasping for oxygen” at that time. The presence of the Indian army in Sri Lanka caused much resentment among Sinhala nationalists who perceived it as a violation of sovereignty. The United National Party’s (UNP) Premadasa had been elected President in 1988 with a narrow majority. Premadasa had pledged he would send away the Indian army if elected.
HAND OF FRIENDSHIP
A campaign of violence was being spearheaded by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). It was at this point that the unorthodox Premadasa stretched out his “hand of friendship” to both the JVP and LTTE. While the JVP spurned the offer, the struggling LTTE grasped it. Talks in Colombo started between the government and LTTE while the Indian army kept battling the Tigers in the North and East. President Premadasa and the LTTE had a common objective. They both wanted the Indian army out for different reasons. Citing the commencement of political discourse with the LTTE, President Premadasa began demanding that a deadline be set for the Indian army to leave Sri Lanka permanently.
For both sides, the perceived fly in the ointment was former opposition leader Appapillai Amirthalingam. The Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) Secretary-General was a firm supporter of the Indo-Lanka Accord and the Indian army presence in Sri Lanka. Although the LTTE had acquired a certain status through its violence and destructive capacity, it was the opinion of non–violent political leader Amirthalingam that carried greater clout internationally due to his political credentials and stature. The fears of the government and the LTTE were partially realised in June 1989 when Amirthalingam eloquently argued that the Indian army should not be sent away from Sri Lanka at that juncture.
The TULF that won 18 seats at the 1977 polls contesting on a separatist platform had been out of Parliament earlier for six years. The anti-Tamil pogrom of July 1983 and the sixth constitutional amendment disavowing separatism resulted in the TULF boycotting Parliament and forfeiting their seats. Amirthalingam, along with several other TULF leaders, went into self-exile in India. The armed struggle waged by many Tamil militant groups gathered momentum. The Indo-Lanka Accord brought about a ceasefire that did not last long. While the TULF and all other militant groups accepted the accord and gave up the goal of “Tamil Eelam,” the LTTE continued to fight. The chief military adversary to the LTTE was now the Indian army and not the Sri Lankan.
Meanwhile, elections under very unsatisfactory conditions were held to the temporarily-merged Northern and Eastern Provincial Council in 1988. The TULF declined to contest and so India installed Annamalai Varatharapperumal of the Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF) as the first (and only) Chief Minister of the North-Eastern Province. When parliamentary elections were held in 1989, the TULF was also forced to contest by India. India brought militant organisations like the EPRLF, TELO and ENDLF to contest along with the moderate TULF under the aegis of TULF and its ‘Sun’ symbol.
RETURNING TO COLOMBO
Amirthalingam and his wife Mangaiyarkkarasi who was herself a political figure in her own right returned to Colombo from Chennai. The first of the TULF ex-MPs to return from self–exile in India was former Jaffna MP Vettivelu Yogeswaran. The popular ever-smiling Yogeswaran who was living with his wife Sarojini at Kilpauk in Chennai (she too was killed later by the LTTE after becoming Jaffna Mayoress) returned to Jaffna alone first. Thereafter, he moved to Colombo and lived at a relative’s house at Kotelawala Terrace in Bambalapitiya. Subsequently, his wife Sarojini joined him. With the Amirthalingams and Yogeswarans returning to Colombo, a safe house for them and other TULF personalities became necessary. Given LTTE hostility none of them could stay in Jaffna safely.
Therefore, a secure house was needed. Former Mannar MP P. Soosaithasan and former Vaddukoddai MP Dr. Neelan Thiruchelvam arranged for such a house at 342/2, Bauddhaloka Mawatha/Bullers Road in Colombo 7. It belonged to a prominent Muslim businessman from Mannar engaged in the manufacture of garments. Former Mahaweli Development Minister Gamini Dissanayake was strongly supportive of the Indo-Lanka Accord and resultant peace efforts. He played a prominent role in encouraging self-exiled TULF leaders to return and be re-absorbed into the political mainstream during the latter stages of the J.R. Jayewardene Government. Gamini Dissanayake in 1988 took the initiative in ensuring the security of TULF leaders when he was a minister.
A six-member team from the Mahaweli Ministry security and the police were stationed at the premises. Amirthalingam dubbed “Naavalar” (Orator) and “Thalapathy” (Commander /General) by youthful supporters at one time had fallen foul of the LTTE later. The Tigers regarded his attempts to reach a negotiated settlement in a united Sri Lanka as a sell-out of the “Tamil Eelam” dream. Thus, Amirthalingam who himself had named Tamil politicians aligned to the government as “Thurogi” or traitor in the past found himself called that by the LTTE and other extremist youths of their ilk.
There was also another reason for militant antipathy towards Amirthalingam which had nothing to do with his real or imagined betrayal of the Tamil Eelam cause. Tamil militant leaders could dictate terms through their arms but none of them had the widespread recognition or leadership credentials of Amirthalingam. Whether in or out of office, Amirthalingam was the most respected Sri Lankan Tamil political leader nationally and internationally. There could be no pretender to the throne as long as he lived.
It was only after Amirthalingam’s death that LTTE minions started describing Prabhakaran as “Thesiyath Thalaiver” or national leader. Amirthalingam himself was fully aware of the danger awaiting him in Sri Lanka. Prior to his permanent departure from India to Sri Lanka, Amirthalingam had met former TULF Kilinochchi MP Veerasingham Anandasangaree in Chennai. During the conversation, Amirthalingam had remarked: “Some of us know what lies in store for us in Sri Lanka, Sangaree. But we must face it if we were to help our people.”
ANATOMY OF ASSASSINATION
It was against this backdrop that the assassination of Appapillai Amirthalingam occurred 30 years ago. I was in Canada when it happened. However, I have spoken at different times with different people connected to the TULF like the late M. Sivasithamparam, Dr. Neelan Thiruchelvam, Ms. Sarojin Yogeswaran and others such as Mrs. Mangaiyarkkarasi Amirthalingam, Dr. Baheerathan Amirthalingam, V. Anandasangaree, P. Soosaithasan and Somasundaram (Mavai) Senathirajah about the incident. It is on the basis of such conversations and related media reports that I pen the anatomy of the assassination.
The LTTE did not try to harm Amirthalingam or any other prominent TULF leader when they were on Indian soil fearing the wrath of New Delhi. Subsequently, the LTTE shed this caution and killed EPRLF leaders like Padmanabha, Kirubaharan and Yogasangaree in Chennai. Emboldened by this, the Tigers dared to kill Rajiv Gandhi at Sriperumpudur on Tamil Nadu soil thereby continuing to pay the price for doing so. Once Amirthalingam returned to Sri Lanka, he became a target. In a bid to put the Tamil leaders off their guard, the LTTE began making overtures to the TULF.
They selected Yogeswaran as the most gullible of TULF leaders and approached him. The lovable Yogeswaran always had a soft corner for the boys despite his bad experiences with some of them. He was also an ardent advocate of broader Tamil unity and strove to bring about rapprochement between the TULF and all Tamil groups including the LTTE.
Yogeswaran was first approached by an LTTE cadre Sivakumar alias Arivu who was staying in Colombo under another name doing reconnaissance for the Tigers. Arivu told Yogeswaran that the LTTE leadership in Wanni wanted to meet with him and discuss ways and means of achieving Tamil unity. Always eager to bring about “Ottrumai” or unity, Yogeswaran was willing in principle. Thereafter, Yogeswaran was contacted on the telephone by someone from the LTTE in Vavuniya called Vigna.
Yogeswaran was asked to bring Amirthalingam and Sivasithamparam along with him if possible. Sivasithamparam was then TULF President and Amirthalingam the General Secretary. The impulsive Yogeswaran decided to take the risk of undertaking a task which he thought was in the interests of greater Tamil unity. He decided to keep the matter under wraps until he was sure of LTTE bona fides in the matter. So Yogeswaran, in February 1989, told his colleagues that he was going on a short trip to the hill country and left Colombo in a jeep with his wife Sarojini and a trusted driver. He dropped off Sarojini at the house of a relative near Kandy and then proceeded north.
Yogeswaran met the LTTE in a secret location at Pandikulam, a village a few miles north of the Vavuniya town. It was at Pandikulam that Yogeswaran discovered the identity of Vigna who had invited him on the telephone to come over. Vigna was none other than Peter Leon Aloysius, the LTTE acting political wing head for Vavuniya. Aloysius welcomed Yogeswaran heartily but expressed disappointment that Amirthalingam and Sivasithamparam had not come. Aloysius said LTTE deputy leader Gopalswamy Mahendrarajah alias “Mahathaya” was prepared to meet Amirthalingam and Sivasithamparam when they arrived. Yogeswaran apologised for their absence and said he had come alone first to finalise arrangements for subsequent meetings with the TULF leaders. He said he would return soon to Pandikulam with Amirthalingam and Sivasithamparam.
MEAL WITH VENISON CURRY
Yogeswaran was treated well by the LTTE and given a meal with venison curry. Satisfied and happy about the reception given by the Tigers, Yogeswaran returned to Colombo via Kandy picking up his wife Sarojini. Back in Colombo, Yogeswaran kept up the pretence initially that he had gone only to the hill country. Yet, he had made a few blunders that cast doubts on his claim. It was the shrewd Anandasangaree who discovered some reddish soil marks on the tyres indicative of Northern rather than highland soil. Also, Yogeswaran brought back jackfruit of the northern variety instead of up country vegetables or fruits. When Sangaree persisted in quizzing Yoges about his trip, the former Jaffna MP explained that he had gone north to settle some land dispute. He did not reveal anything about his meeting with the LTTE to his colleagues at that time.
Yogeswaran however underwent a lot of pressure from the Tigers after his meeting with the LTTE. He would frequently get telephone calls from Vavuniya asking when he was going to bring Amirthalingam and Sivasithamparam to meet the LTTE at Pandikulam. Sivakumar alias Arivu based in Colombo also would telephone regularly and ask the same.
Yogeswaran met the LTTE in a secret location at Pandikulam, a village a few miles north of the Vavuniya town. It was at Pandikulam that Yogeswaran discovered the identity of Vigna who had invited him on the telephone to come over. Vigna was none other than Peter Leon Aloysius, the LTTE acting political wing head for Vavuniya
Yogeswaran however was reluctant to tell the TULF President and Secretary about it and kept matters dragging on. At one stage, Sivasithamparam left for Chennai where his wife was living with their daughter and son-in-law. When Yogeswaran told the LTTE about it, he was told to bring Amirthalingam and come to Vavuniya without delaying by waiting for Sivasithamparam. Finally, Yogeswaran told Amirthalingam confidentially about what had happened and that the LTTE wanted to meet him. Amirthalingam, known for his quick temper, got very angry at Yogeswaran and scolded him severely. The former opposition leader ruled out firmly the suggestion that he should meet the LTTE in the north. Yogeswaran was now in a fix.
Matters took a different turn at this stage as the government of President Premadasa commenced talks with the LTTE directly. A Tigers team led by political adviser Anton Stanislaus Balasingham and then head of the LTTE political wing Narendran alias Yogi came to Colombo for talks. Several other Tiger members not directly involved in the talks also accompanied them. Among these was Peter Leon Aloysius alias Vigna. Using the talks as a cover, the Tigers began to systematically infiltrate
Colombo and the suburbs.
Aloysius himself found a permanent place to stay in Narahenpita. He began to pester Yogeswaran about the proposed meeting with Amirthalingam. Unable and unwilling to tell the LTTE that Amirthalingam had refused, Yogeswaran was in a difficult, stressful situation. The former Jaffna MP suffered a heart attack and had to be hospitalised in Colombo. While in hospital, Yogeswaran was visited by Aloysius and another senior Tiger named Visu.
RASIAH ARAVINTHARAJAH ALIAS “VISU”
Rasiah Aravintharajah alias “Visu” hailed from an upper-middle class family at Vathiri in the Vadamarachchi sector of the Jaffna District. He abandoned higher studies and joined the LTTE after the anti-Tamil pogrom of July 1983. Visu obtained weapons training as part of the LTTE’s second batch of recruits from the Indian military at Juwalamukhi in Himachal Pradesh, NorthIndia. After training, Visu returned to Sri Lanka and worked under Gopalswamy Mahendrarajah alias Mahathaya who was the LTTE commander for the Wanni region at that time.
Visu became a close confidante of Mahathaya. Later, Visu accompanied Mahathaya and went to Jaffna from Wanni. Mahathaya who was appointed deputy leader of the LTTE by Prabhakaran formed a special intelligence unit of the LTTE known as “Beta-2.”Visu was placed in charge. It was this Visu, the head of the LTTE’s Beta-2, who accompanied Aloysius to see Yogeswaran at the hospital. Visu had known Yogeswaran earlier.
Former Mannar MP Soosaithasan was also at the scene when the LTTE duo visited Yogeswaran. He told me that the two Tigers talked tough to Yogeswaran despite the 55-year-old ex-MP lying on a hospital bed. Apparently, the LTTE was irritated over the delay in setting up a meeting with Amirthalingam and Sivasithamparam. After Yogeswaran was discharged and went home to Bullers Road, there were some more visits by Aloysius and Sivakumar to the house itself. Visu did not accompany them. The ostensible reason for the visits was to inquire about Yogeswaran’s health. These visits did not last long and left Yogeswaran in low spirits. No other TULF member was present during these visits. There had been four such LTTE visits prior to the fateful fifth on July 13, 1989. Meanwhile, Sivasithamparam returned to Colombo from Chennai.
The LTTE kept insisting that Amirthalingam and Sivasithamparam come to Vavuniya and meet the LTTE leadership in Pandikulam. Unable to withstand the relentless Tiger pressure, Yogeswaran managed to persuade Amirthalingam and Sivasithamparam to meet the Tigers at least in Colombo. Yogeswaran genuinely felt that the LTTE was keen about achieving overall Tamil unity and that it would benefit the TULF to arrive at an understanding with the Tigers. Incidentally, LTTE supremo Prabhakaran had once used soccer parlance and remarked in Chennai that Yogeswaran was a man who “kicked same-side goals.” Yogeswaran informed Sivakumar that Amirthalingam and Sivasithamparam were ready to meet the LTTE in Colombo. He said a meeting could be arranged in their house itself.
On Thursday, July 13, 1989, Aloysius rang Yogeswaran at about 10.00 a.m. and said the LTTE was amenable to the suggestion. The meeting was scheduled for 6.00 p.m. on the same day. Yogeswaran informed Amirthalingam and Sivasithamparam. There was a hitch as both of them had to attend a dinner hosted by the then Indian High Commissioner in Colombo Lekhan Lal Mehrotra at the Taj Samudra. The dinner was in honour of B.G. Deshmukh who served as Cabinet Secretary and later as the Prime Minister’s Principal Secretary under Rajiv Gandhi. Deshmukh was in Colombo as a special envoy of the Indian premier to deliver a letter to President Premadasa. Yogeswaran requested both TULF leaders to stay and meet the Tigers at 6.00 p.m. and then leave early for the Indian envoy’s dinner. They agree to do so.
SECOND TELEPHONE CALL
Yogeswaran received a second telephone call from Aloysius at about 4.00 p.m. Aloysius said Narendran alias Yogi, the LTTE’s political wing chief, was likely to participate in the meeting. Yogi, Anton Balasingham and other members of the LTTE delegation were staying at the Galadari Meridien Hotel. Aloysius said the LTTE would be there between 6.30 and 7.00 p.m. and not at 6.00 p.m.as arranged earlier.
He also had a request. Yogeswaran was asked to tell the security men not to frisk or search the LTTE team when it arrived as a leader of Yogi’s stature would feel insulted by such acts. Yogeswaran was excited at the prospect of Yogi participating at the talks. He immediately instructed head of security Sub Inspector Thambirajah Kandasamy not to search the LTTE team scheduled to arrive in the evening because they would feel humiliated. Kandasamy demurred saying “you can’t trust these fellows sir.” Yogeswaran assured him that nothing would happen.
He said a senior LTTE leader was expected and that he should not feel insulted. “We must treat them with respect as they are our guests. If they feel insulted they won’t come in the future and our discussions will collapse,” said Yoges. Kandasamy agreed somewhat reluctantly and instructed his subordinates accordingly.
The TULF trio thought Visu was joking. Yogeswaran guffawed while Amir and Siva smiled. Visu then pulled out a gun and began firing at Amirthalingam. Yogeswaran shouted out and rose from his chair. Aloysius whipped out a gun and fired at him
Yogeswaran and wife Sarojini along with Sivasithamparam were staying in the upper storey of the house while the Amirthalingams and Somasuntharam Senathirajah alias “Mavai” were on the ground floor. Senathirajah who is currently the ITAK President and a senior Tamil National Alliance parliamentarian was not an MP at that time.
Amirthalingam’s younger son Baheerathan called Ravi and his wife Malarvizhi with their newborn eldest son had been visiting from the UK. This was the first time the Amirthalingams saw their new grandson. They had returned to Britain on the 12th. Amirthalingam was expecting a call from the son after he reached London.
LTTE TRIO IN A YELLOW CAB
It was 6.40 p.m. when the LTTE trio arrived in a yellow cab. Contrary to expectations, Yogi was not present. The three Tigers were Rasiah Aravintharaja alias Visu, Peter Leon Aloysius a.k.a. Vigna and Sivakumar alias Arivu. Police officer Sathyamoorthy who was manning the entrance allowed the trio to enter without searching them. Sathyamoorthy informed Kandasamy who told him to send the people up to meet Yogeswaran. Visu and Aloysius went up while Arivu positioned himself at the foot of the stairs. Yogeswaran was watching TV upstairs with his wife. Upon being told that the Tigers had come, he went down the stairs and met Visu and Aloysius halfway. Yogeswaran was disappointed that Yogi had not come but greeted Visu warmly.
They sat down and chatted. Sarojini went to prepare refreshments. Yogeswaran sent a note through the servant boy Raju to Amirthalingam who along with his wife, Sivasithamparam and Senathirajah was also watching TV in another room downstairs. Both Amir and Siva dressed up to attend the Indian envoy’s dinner went upstairs while Mangaiyarkkarasi and Senathirajah continued to watch TV. Amirthalingam told his wife to send word to him if their son Ravi called from London.
The two Tigers Visu and Aloysius stood up when Amir and Siva entered. Amirthalingam patted one on the shoulder and sat between them on a cane chair. Sivasithamparam sat down a little further. Yogeswaran got up and went to help his wife with the refreshments. Sarojini brought tomato sandwiches and biscuits. She asked what they wanted to drink. The two Tigers wanted a soft drink. Amirthalingam opted for tea. Siva and Yoges did not want anything to drink. Sarojini made two passion fruit drinks and a cup of tea. She then retired to her room.
After Yogeswaran made the introductions, the Tigers said they were very happy to meet the TULF leaders. Amirthalingam and Sivasithamparam reciprocated with similar sentiments. The two TULF leaders said they admired and respected the Tamil militants for their dedication and sacrifices. It was now necessary for all Tamil groups to come together and forge unity and evolve a common approach. Otherwise the gains made through the Indo-Lanka Accord would be lost. Amirthalingam assured the Tigers that any political arrangement would give pride of place to the LTTE.
“NEUTRAL” COLOMBO RESIDENCE
Visu said he would convey the views expressed to the Tiger leadership. He said the LTTE hierarchy was keen to meet them in Pandikulam and discuss these matters. Amirthalingam said a meeting in Pandikulam was not a sound idea as it would have attracted attention and exposed the location of the LTTE camp. Visu then said senior LTTE leaders would be prepared to meet and discuss further with the TULF in Colombo but the meeting should not be in a TULF residence or office. The senior LTTE leaders could meet the TULF in another place and suggested the name of a lodge in Colombo for a second round of talks. Amirthalingam dismissed the suggestion saying it was not safe, secure or secluded. Sivasithamparam then said a meeting could be set up in a “neutral” Colombo residence.
Visu agreed with the proviso that they had to inspect the place prior to the meeting for security reasons. The conversation was quite cordial. Most of the talking was done by the Amir-Siva duo and Visu while Yogeswaran and Aloysius were fairly silent. At one stage, Amirthalingam stated benignly that it was time for the LTTE to give up the armed struggle and turn to the democratic path. Sivasithamparam stated: “Democracy may seem old-fashioned to youths like you all but please listen patiently to what we old people tell you also.” When asked about the progress of the government-LTTE talks, Visu quipped: “Both sides are deceiving each other and talking.” This elicited a loud laugh from all.
While the conversation continued cordially upstairs, there was some excitement downstairs. Sivakumar alias Arivu who was waiting below began to get agitated after 7.00 p.m.He kept glancing at his watch and paced up and down restlessly often looking upwards in an anxious manner. One of the policemen on duty got suspicious at Sivakumar’s conduct. His name was Nissanka Thibbotumunuwa. The policeman’s native place was Akiriyagala at Hettimulla in the Kegalle District. Nissanka as he was called had been seconded for Amirthalingam’s security from the Mahaweli Ministry.
Nissanka Thibbotumunuwa and Sathyamoorthy forcibly searched Sivakumar and found a grenade and live bullets on his person. Thambirajah Kandasamy was informed. After placing Sivakumar under Sathyamoorthy’s custody, Kandasamy and Nissanka went upstairs quietly. While Kandasamy remained at the top of the stairs, Nissanka went to the balcony and stationed himself there staying out of the sight of the occupants in the main room. Both did not want to disturb the ongoing conversation but were alert because of the grenade and bullets found in Sivakumar’s possession. The spirit of bonhomie continued to prevail inside. And then it happened!
“YOU ALL ARE THE REAL OGRES” (ARAKKAR)
It was about 7.20 p.m. Visu finished his drink and got up to place the empty glass on the table. He then turned and looking at Amirthalingam said: “Everyone thinks we Tigers are the “Arakkar” (ogres) but actually you all are the real ogres.” The TULF trio thought Visu was joking. Yogeswaran guffawed while Amir and Siva smiled. Visu then pulled out a gun and began firing at Amirthalingam. Yogeswaran shouted out and rose from his chair. Aloysius whipped out a gun and fired at him. A stunned Sivasithamparam sitting further away stood up shouting “Vaendaam. Vaendaam” (“don’t, don’t”) in Tamil. Visu fired hitting him in the right shoulder.
Nissanka Thibbotumunuwa heard the shots and looked inside. Seeing what was happening he began firing through the glass panes. He shot and injured both. Visu and Aloysius then ran outside. Kandasamy who also heard the shots ran towards both firing. The injured Visu and Aloysius fired back and tried to run down the stairs but Nissanka who had a second gun with him came around and kept firing. He killed both. Upon hearing the shots, Sathyamoorthy had grabbed Sivakumar who began grappling with him.
Sivakumar alias Arivu broke free and tried to take hold of the grenade seized from him earlier. Before he could lob it, Nissanka who ran down shot and wounded him. Sivakumar then tried to run but Nissanka fired again and brought him down. All three assassins were killed on the spot by Nissanka.
Although Nissanka had inflicted the fatal injuries, the others too had drawn blood. Sub Inspector Kandasamy shot and injured Aloysius while constable Lakshman fired and wounded both Aravintharajah alias Visu and Sivakumar alias Arivu. Since both officers were Tamils, details of their firing were kept out of newspapers then in a bid to protect their families from possible LTTE vengeance.
The key factor that helped Nissanka Thibbotumunuwa in the firefight with the Tigers was him having a second gun. It was possession of a second weapon that helped Nissanka to overcome the Tigers, particularly Arivu who had a grenade clenched in his fist when he was shot first. This was because another colleague on security duty at the Amirthalingam residence was on leave that day. This man named Silva had entrusted his weapon to Nissanka. This was how Nissanka had two guns with him when the firing began. Both Nissanka and Silva were from Mahaweli security and were personally assigned by Gamini Dissanayake for Amirthalingam’s security as trustworthy officers.
HEARD SHOTS AND RAN UPSTAIRS
Mangaiyarkkarasi, Sarojini and Senathirajah heard the shots and ran upstairs by the second stairway behind. Amirthalingam sat motionless on his chair bleeding. His wife not realising her husband was dead placed a cushion behind his head and held him up. The dying Yogeswaran lying in a pool of blood on the floor kept muttering “bastards, bastards” in English as Sarojini knelt at his side. Sivasithamparam slumped against the wall speechless and dazed. Ambulances arrived and the victims
were taken to hospital.
Colombo Judicial Medical Officer (JMO) Dr. M.S. L. Salgado conducted the autopsy on Amirthalingam and declared that death was caused by injuries to the head and chest. Deputy medical officer Dr. L.B.L. de Alwis performed the autopsy on Yogeswaran and stated that death had resulted due to bullet injuries to the heart and liver. Sivasithamparam survived and was the only eye-witness to what had actually transpired on that dismal night. Siva died many years later in 2000.
As stated earlier, Amirthalingam and Sivasithamparam were scheduled to attend a dinner hosted by Indian High Commissioner Lekhan Lal Mehrotra in honour of visiting Indian special envoy B.G. Deshmukh at Taj Samudra on the night they were gunned down. Indian envoy Mehrotra, the then State Defence Minister and Foreign Affairs Cabinet Minister Ranjan Wijeratne and other distinguished guests were at the dinner for B.G. Deshmukh in Taj Samudra. It was former Secretary of Finance B. Paskaralingam who first broke the news of the killing.
Paskaralingam upon arrival told Mehrotra and Ranjan Wijeratne that Amirthalingam had been shot dead. A shocked Mehrotra queried when it had happened and was told fifteen minutes ago. The inquest of the three assassins was held on July 21. The three bodies were disposed of by the State after a reasonable period of time as no one came forward to claim them. The LTTE had officially disclaimed responsibility and continued to keep up its “denial” but there were reports of a mock funeral being held at Ananthapuram. The Tamil community grapevine however buzzed with the news that the Tigers were indeed responsible.
The LTTE could have gotten away without being blamed for the assassination if the three assassins had escaped alive. Thereafter, the Premadasa Government itself may have strained every sinew to deny Tiger involvement. The blame could have been put on the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) or a Tamil group aligned to New Delhi. A case could have been made out effectively that a conspiracy was afoot to implicate the Tigers in the killing and thereby sabotage the government-LTTE talks. This scenario however could not unfold as envisaged because the three Tigers were shot dead and their identities uncovered.
HERO NISSANKA THIBBOTUMUNUWA
The hero in this sorrowful saga was Sinhala cop Nissanka Thibbotumunuwa who shot dead all three Tiger assassins. It was the first and perhaps only occasion where all Tiger assassins involved had been shot dead. Nissanka however was deeply regretful that he could not save Amirthalingam and Yogeswaran. Amirthalingam’s second son Baheerathan had left for Britainon July 12. Nissanka had accompanied him to the Katunayake airport and bade farewell telling him not to worry about the father and assured the son that he (Nissanka) would guard him with his life. On July 13 Amirthalingam was killed. Baheerathan returned to Sri Lankaafter the death on July 15. Nissanka who was at the airport fell down at Baheerathan’s feet asking pardon for not being able to protect Amirthalingam as he had promised. Baheerathan was in tears when he related this to me.
21 years after Amirthalingam’s assassination, there was an emotional reunion in the SabaragamuwaProvince. Mrs. Amirthalingam and Dr. Baheerathan Amirthalingam paid a visit to see Nissanka Thibbotumunuwa at his home in Kegalle in 2010. Nissanka now retired and his wife Shyamila Pramila Kumari welcomed mother and son. Mrs. Amirthalingam and Baheerathan embraced Nissanka and wept upon seeing him.
The truth about the Amirthalingam assassination could have been revealed more comprehensively if the TULF or ITAK had taken the initiative to do so years ago when it occurred. The only surviving eye-witness Murugesu Sivasithamparam maintained a deafening silence overtly on the matter. This was understandable in view of prevailing circumstances at that time. Sivasithamparam would however privately relate what happened to a select few.
“Siva Aiya” as he is known told me what had exactly happened over a telephone conversation. It was a very graphic account replete with minute details. When I commended him for his memory, Sivasithamparam replied: “How can I ever forget what happened that day Thambi?” This conversation on the telephone was a few years after the incident. Siva however wanted an assurance that I refrain from publishing what he told me then. I have also spoken with Mrs. Mangaiyarkkarasi Amirthalingam and Mrs. Sarojini Yogeswaran about their recollections. Sadly, Mrs. Yogeswaran elected as Jaffna Mayoress was killed by the LTTE in 1998. Mrs. Amirthalingam passed away peacefully in 2016.
“I AM SO GLAD THAT NO SINHALESE KILLED HIM”
This then is the tragic tale of how former opposition leader Appapillai Amirthalingam was assassinated along with Vettivelu Yogeswaran by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. When Lasantha Wickrematunge informed opposition leader Sirimavo Bandaranaike of the incident, she hastily inquired: “Who did it?” When told it was the LTTE, Mrs. Bandaranaike heaved a sigh of relief saying: “I am so glad that no Sinhalese killed him.” Many Sinhalese may have hated the politics of Amirthalingam, but they did not kill him. He was killed by the Tamil youths who regarded him as their hero earlier.
D.B.S. Jeyaraj can be reached at [email protected]
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