The assassination of Lalith Athulathmudali has removed from the Sri Lankan scene the politician most hated by President Ranasinghe Premadasa. Few observers of Sri Lankan affairs were surprised at the speed with which the authorities discovered the corpse of the alleged gunman, who just happened to be carrying his identity papers which showed he was a member of the Tamil Tigers.
Athulathmudali's family were not impressed by the diligence of the police. They refused to permit either Premadasa or any of his cohorts to mourn at their house, but numerous senior military officers were allowed to pay their last respects. Although he was only campaigning for regional council elections when he was assassinated, Athulathmudali was the only opposition figure with sufficient presence to pose a long-term threat to Premadasa. Until Athulathmudali lead the movement to impeach the President for abuse of power, corruption and incompetence in August 1991, he was still a member of his cabinet. However, there was no love lost between the two men, despite their both having served in the cabinet of President JR Jayawardene for more than a decade. Athulathmudali stood against Premadasa in the presidential election in 1989 but never had a chance because of his lack of grass- roots support. Perhaps the biggest obstacle between the two men was that Athulathmudali was a member of the Govigama caste, the highest in Sinhalese society, whereas Premadasa belongs to the dhobi, or washerman's caste, which was virtually the lowest.
Athulathmudali's most influential role was his period as National Security Minister between 1984 and 1989, when he was in charge of the military campaign against the Tamil separatist campaign in northern and eastern Sri Lanka. He never allowed sentiment to play any part in his pursuit of politics. Cold-blooded to the point of ruthlessness, he had the unanimous support of senior military officers who were prosecuting the war primarily against the Tamil Tigers.
In the period I covered the civil war in Sri Lanka, from 1986 until 1989, he was the only cabinet minister who positively relished his dealings with the press. He was willing to discuss any topic but was only available to make appointments between 5.30 and 6 in the morning when he would invariably pick up the telephone himself. A man of immense charm, he was also capable of ruthless behaviour. Easily the most intelligent government minister, he could be shockingly frank.
During the abortive 1987 peace agreement, Athulathmudali insisted that the Indian army hand over some Tamil Tigers they arrested in the Palk Straits en route to India. Half of the captives subsequently committed suicide, which then widened the conflict as the Tigers directly attacked the Indian army in northern Sri Lanka. When I said to Athulathmudali that he must have known this would occur, he readily agreed, saying that it was exactly what he wanted to happen, in order to have India on his side.
Despite being seriously injured in a bomb attack on parliament in 1987, Athulathmudali quickly returned to the political fray. After he lost his bid for the presidency, Premadasa was virtually forced to keep him on in the cabinet because of his superb political campaign in his constituency, which gave him a record majority. He was demoted to Agriculture Minister and then to the Education portfolio, which he relished as it gave him an opportunity to tour the entire island.
He had known his life was at risk since the brutal killing of his friend Richard de Zoysa by a suspected police squad in 1990. This was the first time a member of the Sri Lanka elite had been targeted by suspected government elements and sent shock waves through Colombo society.
Lalith Athulathmudali's father was a member of the British-appointed State Council and it was always assumed that he too would eventually go into politics. While studying law at Oxford, he made friends with Brian Walden, his immediate predecessor as President of the Union (he was the first Ceylonese President), and also knew Kenneth Baker, who served on his committee.
At this time he was a supporter of the socialist prime minister SWRD Bandaranaike but was not renowned for holding strident views. However even his close friends were aware of his toughness and ruthlessness, two attributes that remained key components of his political make up. Although he was supported almost exclusively by his fellow Sinhalese, he was not personally felt to be anti-Tamil.