Lakshman Kadirgamar: The Tamil who took on the Tigers

The murder of Sri Lanka's Foreign Minister, a man who fearlessly stood up to the violent separatist movement, has raised fears that the country's fragile ceasefire could be shattered. Justin Huggler reports from Colombo

Monday 13 August 2012 02:31

Sudden violent death is nothing new in Sri Lanka. They are still rebuilding after the tsunami that killed tens of thousands in a single day last December. Down by the seafront fishing communities, Korala Wella train station is still half in ruins, like something out of a disaster movie. The trains still stop at the ruined platforms and passengers get on and off, but there are no ticket counters, no waiting rooms, no buildings. They were all washed away in the tsunami, and there hasn't been time to rebuild them yet.

But even in a country all too familiar with death, the killing of Lakshman Kadirgamar as he climbed out of his swimming pool on Friday night has sent a cold sweat of fear running through society. Eight and a half months after the tsunami, Sri Lankans fear an older nightmare may be coming back to haunt them.

People here fear that Friday's killing is an unmistakable sign of the slow collapse of a ceasefire that has been holding for three and a half years, limping on for two of them after the accompanying peace process came to a dead end.

Down by the seafront, the tourists still order another round of drinks as they watch the Indian ocean breakers roll in, but among the Sri Lankans around them, the fear is that they are locked into an inexorable slide back to a civil war the outside world has forgotten amid the tumult of the "war on terror".

It was here, not in Jerusalem or Baghdad, that the tactic of using suicide bombers was first honed to a fine art - and it had nothing to do with Islam. The Tamil Tiger rebels of Sri Lanka were the world's most proficient suicide bombers long before Osama bin Laden or Hamas ever got in on the act.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam have been fighting for an independent Tamil homeland in the north of Sri Lanka for the past two decades. They are fighting against the rule of the Sinhalese majority, who predominate in the south, which the Tigers say has been repressive towards Tamils. The Sinhalese are mostly Buddhist, and the Tamils are mostly Hindu, but there are Christian and Muslim communities as well.

For the past three and a half years, while the ceasefire has held, the horrors of the civil war have receded from Sri Lanka. But in the wake of the assassination of Kadirgamar, the Norwegian team that monitors the ceasefire has said it is in more danger than ever before.

The Sri Lankan government has accused the Tamil Tigers of being behind the killing of Kadirgamar. The Tigers have denied all involvement, and said they believe the assassination was the work of a faction within the Sri Lankan establishment that wants the ceasefire to fail.

But as Hagrup Haukland, the head of the Norwegian monitoring mission has said, whoever was behind the killing, it has seriously destabilised the ceasefire.

Kadirgamar was not just any senior minister. He was the highest-ranking ethnic Tamil in the government, and had been denounced by supporters of the Tamil Tigers as a traitor to the Tamil cause.

More than that, he was the man who was responsible more than anyone else for drying up international support for the Tamil Tigers. It was his international campaigning that had the Tigers named as a banned "terrorist" organisation in the US, the UK and other countries. Whoever killed Kadirgamar, the Tigers had good reason to want to see him dead.

The place where Kadirgamar died could not be more different from the poor fishing communities that were devastated by the tsunami. This is the Cinnamon Gardens neighbourhood of Colombo Seven, the city's most prestigious residential area, all quiet leafy lanes with private villas set in their own gardens.

The house where Kadirgamar died lies on Bullers Lane. On one side, the neighbours are the Swedish Embassy. On Friday night Kadirgamar was climbing out of his private swimming pool when he was shot four times in the head, chest and throat. He was rushed to hospital, where he died. The President of Sri Lanka, Chandrika Kumaratunga, is said to have broken down when doctors said they could not save him.

Kadirgamar's love of swimming was his undoing. He had been warned by his security detail not to come to the house in Bullers Lane. It is a private residence, and not as well guarded as his official residence. But Kadirgamar insisted on coming here so he could swim - there is no pool at his official residence.

Once before, his love for swimming is believed to have been targetted by would-be assassins, during a visit to India when bizarre plans were uncovered to run a high-voltage electrical current through a pool Kadirgamar was due to use.

The house in Bullers Lane is not well protected. There is a stone wall, but it is topped with a wire fence that would not stop any bullet, and the pool is overlooked by the windows of several neighbouring houses.

It was from one of these that the shots were fired - and here the story becomes curious. The occupants of the house, a couple who were living only on the ground floor because the wife is disabled, say the first floor was closed up and they had no idea the snipers were up there. The wife was leaving the house yesterday under the watch of police who would not comment.

But upstairs, police found food wrappers and a chair fitted with a rest for a rifle. The sniper, or snipers, had even bagged their urine in plastic bags so they would not make any noise by using the toilets.

Yesterday, more than 1,000 Sri Lankan police were scouring the capital for the snipers. But more questions are raised by the site. The window from which the shots were fired is in clear view of a watchtower built on the premises of Kadirgamar's house, yet his bodyguards were unable to catch the sniper and prevent him from fleeing the scene.

Sri Lankan analysts have suggested the sophistication of the assassination suggests the Tigers were behind it. They have a reputation for being far and away one of the most proficient militant organisations in the world, and have pulled off spectacular attacks in the past.

The Tigers have a reputation for never forgiving anyone who they believe has betrayed them or acted against them. But the timing of the killing raises questions over the Tigers' involvement, at a time when they are not thought to be eager for a return to war.

Nobody in Sri Lanka expects an imminent complete breakdown of the ceasefire.

"Neither side is really ready for war," said one Sri Lankan journalist. "The government is planning for snap elections and a return to war would hurt it badly. Plus it just can't afford a war at the moment. But the Tigers are thought to have been weakened by what's been going on in the east to the extent that they need more time to build their forces back up." In the east of Sri Lanka, the Tigers have been facing an internecine struggle with a breakaway faction led by a renegade former Tiger who goes by the name Colonel Karuna. The Tigers have accused the government of secretly backing Karuna's forces, an accusation that is widely thought to be true.

"I think the reason they may have targetted Kadirgamar is because he challenged their claim to be the sole representatives of Sri Lanka's Tamils," said the journalist.

Among Colombo's Tamil minority, you can find differing views. One man, originally born in Jaffna in the now Tiger-controlled north, said: "He was not a traitor to the Tamil people. Nobody can fill the hole he has left." He did not want to give his name for fear of reprisals.

But K Krishnakumar, in the Chennai Silk Shop, said: "Kadirgamar was not very popular among Tamils, because of the things he did. But we don't want war, we want to live together in peace." The day before Kadirgamar was assassinated, the Tigers had publicly warned that the government's actions were endangering the ceasefire. It was the latest of several similar warnings.

Although Kadirgamar is by far the highest-profile victim, the government has accused the the Tigers of being behind 400 killings since the ceasefire came into force.

Although nobody expects the ceasefire to collapse within weeks, the death of Kadirgamar is being seen here as yet more evidence that the country is sliding back towards war. For many Sri Lankans, an uncomfortable feeling of inevitability is growing. Which is why, though the bars and beaches are full, Sri Lankans look on uneasily as the sun sinks into the Indian Ocean.

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