Sri Lanka leader catapulted to top: The simple and unassuming man who stepped into Premadasa's shoes may yet surprise

SRI LANKA'S former prime minister and acting President, Dingiri Banda Wijetunge - a man whom most Sri Lankans regarded as a figurehead - has found himself in high office almost by accident.

Mr Wijetunge, 71, a simple and unassuming man, never expected to become prime minister, let alone head of state. When he was nominated in 1989 he expressed 'complete surprise'. Now Ranasinghe Premadasa's assassination has catapulted him into the limelight, where he is likely to remain until presidential elections at the end of next year.

Sri Lanka's parliament meets today to determine a date for the nomination of the new president to serve out Premadasa's term. The government has already chosen Mr Wijetunge. The opposition, who had earlier announced they would nominate Mrs Sirimavo Bandaranaike, are now undecided whether to enter the contest. But in any event, the opposition cannot muster a majority.

Sahul Hameed, one of the ministers who nominated Mr Wijetunge - like the late president a devout Buddhist, a vegetarian and a teetotaller - explained why. 'The country has witnessed two assassinations in the last 10 days and the people are horrified. There has to be continuity - someone who can hold the government together. DB has been in public life for half a century. His simplicity is borne out of rich experience.'

Mr Wijetunge may yet surprise people. Admirers say he may be considered to be ineffectual but could surprise his critics. 'I think Wijetunge will blossom,' said a Western diplomat. 'He's been cast in the role of a blind loyalist. But I've had very close dealings with him and I've found him alert and intelligent.'

Most analysts feel it is essential to continue the government's economic progress. Under Premadasa's liberalisation programmes, designed to turn Sri Lanka from a socialist state into a market economy, stock market capitalisation rose to dollars 2bn ( pounds 1.3bn) in the last 18 months. Foreign investment, at dollars 200m last year, and tourism have risen to almost pre-civil war levels.

The appointment of Mr Wijetunge, who was also finance minister, is intended to preserve this trend. For now, most foreign bankers are gloomy. 'International investors are savvy people,' said a Western banker. 'One little thing tips the balance.'

Yesterday Premadasa's body was moved from the house in the oldest and poorest part of the city, where had lived until his death, to his official residence, President's House. The funeral on Thursday will be heavily guarded, following unconfirmed reports of possible further assassination attempts on opposition leaders.

Police said the suicide killer who claimed 24 lives and left 36 injured was a Tamil guerrilla who lived in a boarding house near the residence. Gruesome pictures of the assassin's severed head were published yesterday, requesting the public to call with information. A fragment of a cyanide capsule in his neck points to the man being a Tamil Tiger.

Security forces patrolled the streets of Colombo yesterday but life was returning to normal. Military officials said there were no signs of violence or any hostile reaction against Tamils, who allege discrimination by the majority Sinhalese and have been fighting for a homeland in the north and east since 1983.

Reaction to the official announcement blaming Premadasa's death on Tamil separatists was mixed. Some said only Tamil rebels were known to carry out suicide attacks but others wondered whether a Premadasa rival could have been responsible.

(Photograph omitted)

peopleFrankie Boyle responds to referendum result in characteristically offensive style
Arts and Entertainment
Highs and lows of the cast's careers since 2004
New Articles
i100... with this review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Cover Supervisor

£75 - £90 per day + negotiable: Randstad Education Group: Are you a cover supe...

Marketing Manager - Leicestershire - £35,000

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (CIM, B2B, MS Offi...

Marketing Executive (B2B and B2C) - Rugby, Warwickshire

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly successful organisation wit...

SEN Coordinator + Teacher (SENCO)

£1 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Job Purpose To work closely with the he...

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam