Sri Lankans mourn with gun salutes and jasmine: Tight security and a curfew protect the ceremony for a president who had more enemies than friends

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The Independent Online
THE BODY of Sri Lanka's president, Ranasinghe Premadasa, was cremated on a funeral pyre yesterday after a four-hour procession through the streets of Colombo and an elaborate series of Buddhist rites.

A smaller crowd than expected turned out to pay their last respects to Premadasa, a controversial president who was assassinated by a suicide bomber last Saturday.

Security was tight around the city, and a curfew was imposed by the police from 8pm to force people to go home immediately after the ceremony. But although state television had warned that 'some unscrupulous elements may cause trouble', the funeral went off peacefully.

Premadasa's coffin, draped with the Sri Lankan flag and wreaths of jasmine, was given full military honours and saluted with cannon fire, before being carried to the funeral pyre. Trumpeters played the Last Post as Premadasa's two nephews set light to the pyre. In his death, Premadasa joined a long list of South Asian leaders who have died violently while in office, including Pakistan's General Zia ul-Haq and India's Indira Gandhi and her son Rajiv.

During his political life, Premadasa made more enemies than friends. He was handicapped from the start by his low caste, which always made him an outsider in the otherwise high-caste clique of political leaders in Sri Lanka.

He rose to power in a particularly violent period of the country's history. When he became president in January 1989, Indian 'peace-keeping' troops were fighting Tamil guerrillas in the north, while extremist left-wing insurgents of the JVP were causing havoc in the south.

After attempting to negotiate political solutions, Premadasa resorted to a ruthless campaign of torture and summary executions to defeat the JVP in the south. The war with the Tamils in the north continues, although both sides have fought themselves to a virtual standstill.

At the same time, Premadasa tried to remain loyal to his urban, working-class origins, constantly referring to the need to alleviate poverty. Many poor people remember him fondly for his public housing programme. Even while president, he continued to live a modest life in his old family house in central Colombo.

Premadasa felt insecure throughout his political life, and his worst fears came true in 1991 when members of his own party conspired to move an impeachment against his presidency for alleged abuse of power.

The prime mover of the impeachment was Lalith Athulathmudali, who was shot dead by an, as yet, unknown killer a week before Premadasa's assassination. Sri Lanka has many scars.

(Photograph omitted)