Retired diplomat Howard Debenham reflects on tumultuous years in Sri Lanka

My relationship with the President grew and the bilateral relationship between Sri Lanka and Australia prospered. With what I took to be considerable sincerity, he asked me to work with a small group of his confidants looking for a pathway to peace with the LTTE.

by Howard Debenham

He was a delusional tyrant damaging the good name of Sri Lanka. Sure, he had out-terrorized the terrorist Singhalese Marxist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) which had brought the country to its knees, but he was using this success and the bloody fight with the powerful separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) to excuse harsh methods of dealing with his opponents. The judiciary had been cowed and his visionary economic and infrastructure reforms were being used to enrich himself and his cronies.

So said Sri Lanka's wealthy upper class who, before the lesser being of Ranasinghe Premadasa shouldered his way into the Presidency in 1989 upon the retirement of the viciously imperious J R Jayawardene, had been very comfortable with their self-serving ways of running the country since the British left in 1948.

But, however cautionary these views may have been, along with dark reminders about his recent expulsion of the British High Commissioner, my job as Australia's newly arrived High Commissioner to Sri Lanka in early 1992 was to get close enough to Premadasa for him to listen to Australia's views on human rights, trade and investment, aid, and, on the broader stage, nuclear non-proliferation and the control of chemical weapons.

From our first meeting at the presidential mansion, Sucharita, we got along well. He made it clear he would be pleased to see more of me, one-on-one. That I should not be a stranger. Our relationship developed to the point that when I needed to see for myself what was going on with the vicious civil war between the government and the LTTE, he readily facilitated it. Unescorted and unencumbered, I arrived at the small village of Alinchipotana in the eastern farming province of Polonaruwa a few days after the latest massacre of civilians. But as most survivors had already found refuge elsewhere and the bodies had been removed, what exactly had happened and who was to blame was not clear.

Soon after, on October 15, 1992, another massacre was perpetrated. This time in a Tamil-speaking Muslim community, again in the east, again in a simple farming village - Palliyagodella.

I flew in on a presidentially assigned military aircraft early the next day - with Premadasa's one-man investigatory commissioner, a retired Rear Admiral. The army and the police were there in numbers and additional units were on the way.

It was a harrowing experience. For several hours I wandered the village completely unattended while the Commissioner set up his enquiry site with a rickety desk and chairs under an ancient spreading tree outside the village square.

With the early morning heat rising, I counted about 40 bodies laid out in the square. Men, women and children. Down a dusty track on the village outskirts, I surprised two battle-ready soldiers who waved me away, warning me of the possibility of sniper fire from the nearby forest. They were not happy about me seeing them burning the bodies of two LTTE fighters.

Further on I came across a distraught and disheveled farmer outside what was left of his pitifully primitive pole and thatch hut which had been torched. Helplessly, I squatted beside him as he gazed, mutely, at the dark patches of dried blood in the middle of the deeply rutted road where, he gestured quite graphically enough, his wife and children had had their throats slashed. Wild-eyed and weeping villagers were passing by with ragged remnants of possessions in battered carts or slung over their shoulders. On their way to who knew where or what.

Similarly ghastly, inhuman, scenes were scattered around. The organized squads of killers had used knives, rather than guns, so that the sound of shooting would not frighten villagers off.

It became very clear who the perpetrators had been. At my instigation, our Foreign Minister, Gareth Evans, denounced the LTTE in the House of Representatives in November 1992. Soon after, I was informed by both Sri Lankan and British intelligence (not, oddly, their Australian counterparts) that I was on an LTTE hit list.

A few weeks later, one sidled up to me at a crowded gathering to say that, sorry, this listing had been a mistake and my name had been removed. Within a day or two of the heavily armed Sri Lankan military guards at the gates to our residence being removed, my wife was halted by very nervous police on the road just behind our house where, they said, a terrorist, lying in wait for someone, had been flushed out by police and had killed himself with a grenade. Maybe he hadn't got the memo.

My relationship with the President grew and the bilateral relationship between Sri Lanka and Australia prospered. With what I took to be considerable sincerity, he asked me to work with a small group of his confidants looking for a pathway to peace with the LTTE.

On April 23, 1993, Lalith Athulathmudali, joint leader with my friend Gamini Dissanayake of their new and increasingly popular party, the Democratic United National Front (DUNF), and bitter opponents of Premadasa, was shot dead at a rally by a gunman who police killed on the spot. Though Premadasa denied involvement, many believed otherwise.

Athulathmudali's funeral quickly deteriorated into a wild riot and a heavy-handed police response. It had reached its worst late in the afternoon, as my wife and I were approaching home. A wailing mob had just crossed the road in front of us and left it strewn with rocks and other debris. A large policeman strode up to us angrily waving his big black pistol over his head, but helped us through when he saw who we were. We had to close up the house to keep the rolling tear gas out.

A few days after Athulamudali's assassination, the President's fiercely loyal Secretary, K H J Wijayadassa, called to say the President would like me to join him in the streets of Colombo on the morning of Saturday, May 1, 1993, preparatory to his usual May Day address at the sea front on the Galle Face Green. This seemed alright until Wijayadassa said Premadasa actually wanted me to be with him as he moved among those who would be streaming in for the address.

Though I could see the value of this, in terms both of the friendship between us and for Australia's influence with Premadasa, Canberra's guidelines were clear: diplomats could not participate in such overtly political activity. I did the best I could to explain this to Wijayadassa whose apprehension about informing Premadasa was palpable. But he soon rang to assure me the President quite understood.

Around mid-day on May 1, I heard the distant WHOOMPH of an explosion when I was nearing the end of a snatched nine holes on the golf course. My partners thought it was fireworks, but experience strongly suggested otherwise. I suspected the worst and hurried home to look into it.

Sure enough, a suicide bomber had made an attempt on Premadasa's life in the back streets. He was, reportedly, safe, but some in his entourage had been killed. By evening though, they were hedging.

The next morning, there he was in a front page newspaper photograph. Dead. Bloodied and misshapen. Though to me still recognizable. The newspaper claimed it had not been able to establish the identity of the person before publication, but this was nonsense.

The bomber, an LTTE operative squirreled into the President's personal staff, had pedaled up to the entourage, left his bike nearby, said he had a message for the President and was allowed through. He detonated the bomb as Premadasa received him.

Had I accepted Premadasa's invitation, I would surely have been right next to him. Maybe he wouldn't have been killed had I been there, because the LTTE had always been careful to leave foreigners out of it. Perhaps this had occurred to Premadasa. But the decision to get him had been taken and he would no doubt have provided them, eventually, with another opportunity.

Rumors abounded about who did it and why, especially so soon after the slaying of the popular Athulathmudali. Even India's CIA, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), long at odds with Premadasa, was suspected. But I did not doubt that it was the LTTE - believing that Premadasa had become so popular, including with their constituent Tamil communities, that he might have eroded the LTTE's own influence.

The Presidency quickly returned to Sri Lanka's old privileged elite and has remained in their blundering, self-serving and, whenever it suits them, vicious hands ever since.

Abridged extract from author's book "Waiting 'round the Bend".

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