Why was Ranasinghe Premadasa murdered
The murdered head of state of Sri Lanka reduced parliament, party and cabinet to spectators of his sole rule / LTTE Tamils deny responsibility for the attack ■ Bernard Imhasly from Colombo
More than 300,000 people gathered yesterday in front of the house of the murdered President Ranasinghe Premadasa to say goodbye to the dead man. Given the tense situation, the government moved additional troops to the capital. She fears that Premadasa's cremation scheduled for Thursday could lead to unrest.
The head of state was killed in a "suicide attack" on Saturday. 23 people died with him and more than 60 were injured. The assassin has not yet been identified. According to the police, however, the nature of the attack and the fact that a broken poison capsule was found on the perpetrator point to the work of Tamil LTTE separatists. The LTTE, however, deny this. Premadasa - despite his categorical rejection of an independent Tamil state - had always kept the door open for them to negotiate. He did this against the increasing criticism of the army because he never let the military pressure escalate into a final offensive.
Premadasa had enemies in other camps as well. In the last few weeks the political debate intensified: the upcoming election for 7 provincial councils - in and of itself of minor importance - had become an important political indicator, as it represented the only popularity test for Premadasa until the renewal election for the presidency at the end of 1994. For the opposition Democratic United National Front (DUNF) this vote had become an even greater challenge. This is where former government politicians like Lalith Athulathmudali gathered after they were expelled from the ruling party by Premadasa last year. Despite the small size of the DUNF, its leader Athulathmudali was the only politician who could endanger Premadasa.
When Athulathmudali was shot dead at an election rally a week before the Premadasa attack, it was rumored that the president had got rid of his rival. But the latter immediately returned the allegations and alluded to the rivalries within the DUNF as a possible motive. Just one day before his death, he called out to his opponents: "You can kill me as you killed Lalith - but just don't think you can do it with character assassination."
The enmity against the murdered politician had its roots in the autocratic interpretation of the privileges which the constitution gives the president and which are reinforced by the exceptional legislation that is still in force. In the four years of his tenure he reduced parliament, party and cabinet to spectators of his sole rule. He appointed colorless politicians as ministers and controlled their administration through personal advisers.
Premadasa justified its authoritarian style of leadership on the fact that Sri Lanka was going through a painful process of economic renewal despite a ruinous defense budget and deep-seated poverty. He coupled his liberalization policy with populist programs, which also secured him great sympathy among the poor population of the country. Despite their populist thrust - and their economic dubiousness - these were not rooted in political opportunism, but in his basic Buddhist attitude, which made the ideals of social equality a religious task. It also reflects his origins.
Born in a working-class neighborhood of Colombo, Premadasa grew up in the trade union movement. In it he not only found the political expression for his religious convictions, it also formed in him the authoritarian traits, which in this country are by no means viewed as contradicting Buddhist teachings.
Ranasinghe Premadasa's style of government found its hardest expression in the fight against the Sinhalese underground movement JVP, which at the beginning of his term brought the country to the brink of anarchy with a terrorist strategy of violence and a mixture of racist and Marxist ideas.
Premadasa's reaction was just as brutal: between 1989 and 1991, thousands of Sinhalese - including many innocent - disappeared in the prisons and torture chambers of the army and police. Despite this extermination operation, the JVP is said to have survived underground, and there are observers who suspect the thread pullers of the attack on Saturday in their ranks.
Premadasa is leaving a vacuum in the country's political system that was only increased by the death of Athulathmudali a week earlier. Interim President Dingiri Banda Wijetunga, whom the ruling party nominated as a candidate to succeed Premadasa over the weekend, and his cabinet colleagues are seen as weak transitional figures. The opposition party of the former Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike, the "Sri Lanka Freedom Party", is practically divided and therefore no counterforce. The impending instability could not only paralyze the liberalization process. It is also likely to drag out a political solution to the ethnic conflict in the north. In this respect, the LTTE would have had at least one motive for the murder of President Premadasa, even if the act hardly brought them closer to their ultimate goal.
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